Using Verbs Effectively

Multiple verbs either cause sentence focus to be lost, or add distance between the reader and the action.

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Verbs, as we are taught in school, are ‘doing’ words: they are the action of the sentence. A verb should, therefore, be the main action of its sentence, yet often multiple verbs appear, confusing the focus of sentences or adding distance between the action and the reader.

Focus

A reader should be able to distil what is happening from the verb in relation to the sentence’s subject; the verb should be the primary action.

She unlocked the door and opened it.

This sentence has two actions – both independent verbs yet dependent on the sentence – and so the sentence lacks focus. Which is more important, that she unlocked the door, or opened it? If the main point is to get her to look outside, then surely opening the door should be the meaningful action.

She opened the door.

If, however, the door being locked is more important, perhaps as she has been kept prisoner or is holding others captive, or keeping something out, then the action of unlocking should be the focus.

She unlocked the door.

If both are necessary, consider splitting them into separate clauses.

She unlocked the door; opening it.

This could be split further, into two sentences.

She unlocked the door. Carefully, she opened it.

This way, both carry suitable weight and focus. Each sentence is clear as to what is happening, and therefore both hold their own importance.

Distance

A reader should experience the story as closely as possible, yet often verbs are used to describe perception, adding distance.

I heard him open the cupboard.

The narrator is telling the story, so unless the fact that they heard this action is important, mentioning it simply distances the reader from the action.

He opened the cupboard.

Even an omniscient narrator tells a story through their own perception, so describing it, or that of other characters, is unnecessary unless the perception is the focus, instead of the action.

I heard the creak of the cupboard door.

Now the focus is purely on the perception and there is no other action. If the other character opening the door is also important, it should be a separate sentence.

I heard the creak of the cupboard door. He had opened it.

Now both sentences are focused and there is no additional distance separating the reader from the action.

 

Sentences, at their essence, should be a subject and a verb. Confusing either will confuse your reader.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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