Arguably, the verb is the most important part of speech. In some languages, a single word can be an entire complex sentence including subject, object, indirect object, instrument, and more—and that word is a verb.
In English, the verb is the only single word that can be a complete sentence on its own (such as in the sentences “Go!” or “Leave!”). And while English demands that there must be a subject too (it’s implied in command forms), English has filler or expletive or existential subjects that are just placeholders for the verb. Just look at this sentence: “It is raining.” “It” has no meaning, and in a language like Spanish, such a subject would be omitted as superfluous.
The verb is the heart of the predicate, and, if you ask me, the heart of the sentence. Now, what is a verb, exactly?
The definition you probably know is something like, “A verb is an action word, or a state-of-being word.” A decent enough definition, but not exactly accurate or complete.
Linguistically, a verb is a verb because it, at least in English:
--is inflected (conjugated) for tense and/or number
--can show mood, aspect, and voice (as well as gender in some languages)
--is modified by another verb or an adverb
--other fancy reasons that aren’t that important
If none of those above reasons made sense, forget about it. You know what a verb is instinctually. Now onto what the verb can do for you.
One of the easiest ways to go about “showing, not telling” is to give your verbs a long and hard look. Adverbs and adjectives are extra; verbs are essential. Adverbs and adjectives are “telly” more often than not; verbs typically not when you use descriptive ones. As a result, verbs declutter your prose because you can use one word instead of two or more by selecting verbs that are more specific or precise. Additionally, your descriptive handiwork might just become less visible to the reader. Examples, you say?
Harry shuffled into the room.
I get two readings from this sentence. Context would clarify. Harry is perhaps tired and snoozy and thus not picking up his feet as he enters the room. In general, Harry is reluctant to enter the room. Reluctant because he’s tired. Reluctant because he’s insecure. Reluctant because he has iron shackles around his ankles. Or something else entirely, but he’s not moving fast and his feet are making static.
Harry strode into the room.
Harry’s the proud arrogant type. Certainly not the insecure or downtrodden or sleepy Harry from before.
Harry struggled into the room.
This one pops in the question of “struggled against what?” but right away, the reader knows getting into the room isn’t an easy task or job for poor Harry.
Harry stepped into the room.
Yawn. Usually, getting into a room requires stepping. But maybe Harry did just simply step into the room, no embellishment.
Harry sashayed into the room.
Harry’s swinging his hips back and forth as he enters the room. Harry’s got sass.
Harry swept into the room.
Harry’s in a hurry and moving quickly but smoothly. Or Harry’s trying to make an entrance. Either way, he swept into the room, man.
And all of those example sentences amounted, when reduced to basic semantics:
Harry entered the room.
But each gave the reader different information and a different understanding of Harry and how he entered the room. Guess what, though? Not a single adverb or adjective in any of those sentences. Just nouns, verbs, articles, and prepositions (and the last two don’t count.)
Of course, you could have written:
Harry stepped tiredly into the room.
The problem is, ‘tiredly’ means something different to each reader. Your reader’s left applying his or her own idea of ‘tiredly,’ or trying to figure out what your definition of ‘tiredly’ is. When I’m tired, I walk more or less the same way as I do when I’m not tired. Some people I know are thudding water sacks when they’re tired. Other people really are feet-dragging, shuffling zombies.
Plus, using a word like ‘tiredly’ is cheating, somewhat; you the writer are interpreting the character’s actions and reasoning and then just handing it to the reader. Oh, he did this because he was tired. He did this because he was proud. He did this because of that or that or that.
But if Harry strode into the room, then Harry strode into the room; his steps were long and determined. Maybe Harry did it because he was proud, or maybe he was in a hurry, or maybe he was pissed off, but that’s where context and the reader’s knowledge of Harry comes in. If Harry’s typically a shuffler but is now suddenly a strider…?
Mystery, intrigue, drama. Gasp.
If you’re introducing a new character and you want the reader to get the sixth sense that this dude isn’t to be messed with, you can begin to give the reader that sixth sense without saying “he had a dangerous look in his eye” or “he looked as if he might jump X at any second.” Nope, you can say that this character strolled into the room tapping the tip of his cane against the parquet. That examined the other guests as they turned to look at him. That he stopped and inclined his head to everyone before proceeding to stroll through the room, cane clicking against the hardwood, gaze looking at each and every guest there—and that instead of sitting down, he went and leaned against the wall.
Verbs. More than just what you do.
As with all good things, the key is moderation. If you bust out the big, dramatic words at every single opportunity, your reader’s going to start and wonder why everyone is striding or stomping or storming or shuffling or stumbling or staggering all the time.
The real enemy, though, is when you start using verbs that aren’t precise to what the character did. If the character’s gaze didn’t pierce or stab, don’t say it. If the character didn’t claw off his own flesh, don’t say it. If the character isn’t writhing in agony, don’t say that he is. A verb with a lot of oomph to it like ‘writhe’ isn’t to be used lightly or willy-nilly. While exaggeration and personification are useful tools in themselves, use them with care. Exaggeration and personification and inaccurate verbs in inattentive, unappreciative hands result in hilariousness and disbelief and eye rolls and melodrama.
Also beware of fancy-sounding verbs that are inherently ‘telling.’ If Harry is ‘despairing’ after the loss of his best friend, and if Harry ‘hates’ the man who killed his best friend… well, go into more detail. Be specific, accurate, precise with your verbs. ‘Despair’ is as different to each person as walking tiredly is, if not more so. Is Harry… sobbing? trembling? staring at a wall? gulping whiskey? gulping Coke? driving around in circles? flooring the accelerator? Etc.
In conclusion, the verb is a powerful little word capable of doing the work of adjectives and adverbs and multiple sentences all by its lonesome. It’s the heart of the sentence. Employ descriptive, accurate, precise, specific words for what your characters do or be, and your prose and your readers will thank you. They can characterize without being overhanded or overbearing. But, as with all things in writing, you must practice, and you must be judicious, and you must be truthful.
Now charge forth and wield verbs as the weapons they are.