THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART II by Miko Johnston

PART II: Use action verbs

Many writers loathe passive verbs and avoid using them even when they should. How many times have you read a convoluted sentence constructed out of active verbs reinforced with adverbs and a string of adjective-enhanced nouns? An example of a writer torturing his prose, as well as the reader, because he believes the rule is more important than the readability.

Use action verbs instead of more passive wording whenever possible, but don’t assume using passive verbs always weakens prose. A brief, declarative sentence can carry a great deal of weight and meaning.  Look at any list of the greatest opening lines in literature and you’ll see examples that prove the point:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Orwell, 1984

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Hemingway, The Old Man And The Sea

These opening lines share not only a simplicity in their wording, but they instantly create a mood, both descriptively and emotionally. They prove you can create power in simplicity.

Next week, we’ll consider the role of adjectives and adverbs; do they help or hurt our writing?

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