Action Verbs

Hi Folks,

In the previous two posts I mentioned using action verbs in brief descriptive narratives. The same goes for longer narratives, of course.

There are three kinds of verbs: state-of-being verbs, linking verbs, and action verbs.

State-of-being verbs do not show action. As their name implies, they are used to indicate a state of being.

The state-of-being verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. These are often accompanied by have, has, and had.

Linking verbs (and state-of-being verbs can act as linking verbs) do not take a direct object. They take a complement, which they link to the subject of the sentence; hence, their name.

A linking verb, when it is not one of the state-of-being verbs listed above, is a sense verb: That is, it gives the reader a sense of action rather than letting him see the actual action in a mental movie. Sometimes it actually invokes the reader’s own physical senses. In the examples below, the linking verb is underlined, and the complement appears in italic font:

Bill Clinton was the president. (See how “was” links Bill Clinton and the president?”

I feel angry. (Angry modifies the linking verb “feel.”)

I smelled hay and became confused. (Became links “I” and “confused.” Smelled is an action verb and hay is its direct object.)

Notice that in every case, the complement either describes the subject (the complement is an adjective) or could take the place of the subject (the complement is a noun or pronoun).

Action verbs are those that actually enable to reader to experience the action through the character and the narrator.

Whenever you write a noun, you place a picture in the reader’s mind. When you follow the noun with an action verb, the picture moves and enables the reader to see for himself what’s going on. This is why you often hear fiction instructors say you should show, not tell, the reader what’s going on.

When you use action verbs, you’ll also need and use fewer descriptive adjectives and adverbs. Any unnecessary ones will fall away of their own accord. This means you don’t have to “watch” for adjectives and adverbs.

The successful writer will, in effect, show a movie in the reader’s mind.

I’ve long believed the best way to teach a concept is through example and illustration. To illustrate why you should avoid state-of-being verbs and use action verbs whenever possible, consider the following:

John was angry.

This sentence contains a subject, John; a linking verb that’s also a state-of-being verb, was; and a complement that describes John, angry. Now, what do you know about John? What do you see in your mental movie? If you have a picture of John in mind at all, is the picture clear or vague?

John was very very angry.

How about now? Now do you have a better mental movie going on? Remember when I mentioned that using action verbs would reduce your dependence on adjectives and adverbs? Okay, now let’s try a sentence in which we allow the reader to see John’s anger for himself:

John kicked the door down, stormed across the livingroom, and smacked Steve in the mouth.

How’s that mental movie now? Is there any doubt in your mind that John’s upset? (But notice that the words angry or upset or mad never appear.)

If you choose to add adjectives or adverbs to the example, they will only enhance it. For example, he “kicked the solid oak door down” is more powerful than “he kicked the door down.” Then again, would you need “stormed angrily” instead of “stormed”? Nope. It’s redundant. “Stormed” conveys that anger connotation without the adverb.

BY THE WAY, if you haven’t been following Dean Wesley Smith over at, over the past few days he’s been posting some EXCELLENT instruction on how to write sales copy (blurbs, descriptions, etc.) for fiction stories and novels. I strongly advise you to check it out. You can copy the chapters of the book he’s writing on that topic and paste them into a Word document to read later. He doesn’t mind. It’s why he posts them live.

Until next time, happy writing.


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2 thoughts on “Action Verbs”

  1. The action of a story happens in the action verbs. Thank you for reminding of this key. I will ACT on my action verbs and probably put up a sign near the desk to remind me. Thanks a bunch (grapes or their vintage result).

    Chris Stern

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