A novelist who shrugs off the need for active verbs could sink in the same boat as novelist who neglects plot—and for the same reason. Events must unfold in the physical world, the emotional one, or, ideally, both. Reduce everything to syndrome or possibility or state of being, and nonfiction becomes a preferable reading and writing choice.
Examine the evolution of the verb “do.” “To do” now compiles priorities to accomplish. On the novelist list? Capture action with active verbs. Because the noun “to do” signals commotion, stew, fuss, quarrel, agitation, uproar, stir, tempest in a teapot, hurricane, squall, tumult, or storm. Fiction originates right there. As Charles Baxter said, “Hell is story friendly.”
Tip: A scene without “to do” isn’t much of a scene.
Feeling isn’t doing. Neither is worrying. Neither are sentences like: “Anne felt angry,” or “He was astonished by the amount of confusion,” or “Wandering listlessly, he got in touch with how lost he really was.” No “to do” there. No good verbs, either.
Note how verbs invigorate the opening of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters:
She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. She pushed out with her other hand, and as the sweat broke out on her forehead, as her flesh crawled and tightened, she said, “No, no, stop that!” to the cat, as if it had done nothing more than beg for food, and in the midst of her pain and dismay she was astonished to hear how cool her voice was. Then, all at once, the claws released her and flew back as though to deliver another blow, but then the cat turned-it seemed in mid-air-and sprang from the porch, disappearing into the shadowed yard below.
ü Skip the distancing auxiliaries: “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, may, might, can, could, shall, should, will, would, must.”
ü Snare the verb: “sweeten” instead of “add a sweetener.”
ü Banish dead metaphors. Find another way to illuminate that idea.
ü Replace vague abstraction with concrete verbs: prop, besiege, wither, decimate.
ü Jazz things up. Sizzle, curtail, unravel, kvetch, and pounce.
But jazz up every verb, and you sound demented. Add just enough to electrify—to do, to act. Verbs repair weaknesses and incite commotion. That incites great scenes.