How to use verbs in fiction for maximum impact
Updated: May 5
Download the FRedit sheet here:
In a line edit, there are certain kinds of verbs to watch out for.
Some convey an action that drives the story forward, or makes a scene more vivid. Other verbs help the funky verbs do their thing.
Filter words (verbs that filter experience) are often overused and are prime candidates for being trimmed.
Words like “began to”, “started to”, “managed to” are similar. Take a look at this extract, for example:
The monster started to run towards him, and he began to cry out. He glanced ahead and saw a portal. If only he could manage to reach it in time, maybe he would be safe? A light was shining on his face and he couldn’t see anything for a brief second. He started to think about what would happen if he didn’t make it in time.
Now compare that with:
The monster ran towards him, and he cried out. He glanced ahead and saw a portal. If only he could reach it in time, maybe he would be safe? A light shone on his face and he couldn’t see anything for a second. What would happen if he didn’t make it in time?
So, what is going on here?
These verbs are emphasizing process (he managed to …) or a change of state/condition (he started to/he began). Different languages handle these in different ways, e.g. through tenses, verb forms, or extra verbs. English likes to verb them.
Verbs in fiction: What if the process is the emphasis?
Sometimes, the process is the emphasis. For example:
She managed to climb the mountain
Has a very different connotation to
She climbed the mountain.
He started to eat the jelly
Has a different meaning to
He ate the jelly
But sometimes the difference in connotation is slight. For example:
They started to walk towards her
They walked towards her.
If the process or change of state is the emphasis, then you'll want to keep that wording. If not, as with the last example, then those verbs are great options for cutting.
Indeed, just like filter words and tentative language in fiction, these verbs are often overused and removing them can make your other verbs more impactful. This is especially important in fiction because you want to keep the reader immersed and have them build a clear picture on their visuospatial sketchpad.
The same applies to the occasional overuse of the past continuous tense.
A light was shining on his face and he couldn’t see anything for a brief second.
A light shone on his face and he couldn’t see anything for a second.
How can I catch these verbs when line editing?
If, like me, you are a fan of FRedit, you can run this macro so that it highlights all instances of these verbs. Then you can review each usage during your main edit.
I like to use the same colour highlighting for these verbs in fiction that I use for filter words and tentative language. It can be really telling when you have a heavily highlighted passage!
Feel free to download my FRedit sheet for fiction editing here.
Finally, if you want to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend taking the EFA Introduction to Line Editing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction course. That's where I first encountered these discussions!
The Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction by Amy J. Schneider is another great resource!
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!