WAYW: Emotionally Charged Action Verbs

This post is part of a series on Writing About Your Writing. Check out more posts here.

Anytime you are writing about your writing, you always want to think in terms of actions. Both the action of the plot, and more critically the action of your characters. To do this well, you must harness the power of Emotionally Charged Action Verbs.

Most dramatic writers are obsessed with dialogue. Dialogue is important, obviously, but it’s best to think of dialogue as the vehicle in which your scenes move. The engine is the actions. Doesn’t matter how slick your Porsche looks from the outside, it ain’t gonna go anywhere if it’s running on a Ford 4.2 V8 (and yes, I had to google that in order to make this metaphor work.)

Emotionally Charged Action Verbs are particularly useful when crafting a Logline because of the need for brevity. But let’s pretend the following is an excerpt from a synopsis, treatment, or outline. (More on those in another post).

Bad WAYW looks like this:

Brad comes home from work late. Mary says she burnt dinner waiting for him. Brad tells her he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Mary calls him a deadbeat. Brad explains he was fired and heads to his room. Mary reminds him that she can’t read his mind.

Notice how almost all the verbs have to do with what Brad and Mary SAY to each other, rather than what they DO. Whether or not the actual scene is any good, reading this makes it sound like it’s all a bunch of talk.

In The TV Writer’s Workbook, Ellen Sandler writes: “When you’re looking over your story treatment and you see where you’ve written ‘Character A tells Character B…anything,’ what you’re really doing is writing dialogue without actually writing it, and that doesn’t help you move your story. If you describe a beat of your story as one character telling something to another, you have shortchanged yourself on emotional content.”

Other talky verbs include: “says”, “explains”, “goes” (as in, Brad goes “Of course, Mary.”), “asks”. Each of these types of verb are neutrally charged. They don’t imply any emotion or strong intention. They just sit there, politely. When it comes to your writing, politeness = death.

Emotion and intention is communicated through our actions and behavior. Conflict is also best expressed through actions, rather than dialogue. Someone does something that gets in the way of what someone else wants. Emotional Conflict is the backbone of every good story. Therefore, when writing about your writing, you must focus on the actions first. Then you’ll be able to write better dialogue later.

Now let’s change those talky verbs into Emotionally Charged Action Verbs.

Emtionally Charged Action Verbs are verbs that carry a positive or negative connotative charge, and usually imply an intention.

Brad shuffles in the door and slumps at the table. Mary plops down a plate of burnt meatloaf and berates him for being late. Brad clenches his jaw and shrugs her off, so Mary prods harder and insults him. Brad explodes with the news that he was fire, and rages toward his room. Mary bellows after him.

This scene has some conflict, emotion, and drama. It’s interesting, and we want to know what happens next. There’s behavior and an implied emotional charge. Look at words like “shuffle” “plop” “shrugs off.”  Even the words that imply dialogue are now charged with intention and emotion. Look at words like “berates,”, “insults,” “bellows,” and “explodes.”

And this is simply ONE WAY to activate this scene. Here’s another way, shaded with a different color.

Brad rushes in the door, and races to the dinner table. Mary confesses she burnt dinner and bursts into tears. Brad comforts her, and Mary attempts a playful insult. Brad gets quiet before betraying the news that he was fired. He hangs his head and after a moment drifts off to his room. Mary stammers to explain herself.

Totally different emotion, different type of interpersonal conflict, yet still engaging, surprising, and interesting. Here we have some more words that imply dialogue, but also contain an emotional charge: “comforts,” “confess,” “betray,” “stammer.”

The important thing to notice is that the FACTS of the story didn’t change. Brad still came home late, Mary still burnt the dinner, Brad still told her he got fired, and Mary still called after him.

The only thing that changed was HOW those facts were portrayed – via the use of Emotionally Charged Action Verbs.

So how is this useful? In another post, we’ll cover why it’s important to step back and draft a synopsis even if you’ve already written the scene. But the underlying use is to invigorate your writing with more action either before you write it, or before you begin a rewrite.

Another tip from Ellen Sandler: “Go through your story treatment and highlight every instance where you have characters telling, asking, or explaining something to each other. You’ll become aware of how often you rely on what is essentially dialogue to tell your story. Now replace those verbs with emotionally active verbs and watch your story come alive.”

Here’s a list of Emotionally Charged Action Verbs that Ellen put together to get you started:

Betray. Attack. Tattle. Confess. Belittle. Admit. Divulge. Lie to. Confide. Tell off. Titillate. Harangue. Hint at. Tip off. Argue with. Mislead. Tease. Accuse. Cajole. Criticize. Bemoan. Denounce. Blame. Beg. Demand.

It sounds obvious, but the more you write in terms of the actions that your characters take, the more active your scenes will become. You’ll also notice how easy it is to slip into the habit of using dialogue to tell your story. But even in the most dialogue-heavy scripts, action is the element that reveals character, creates exciting conflict, and moves the plot forward. It takes some effort at first, but with practice you’ll get better at it.

What To Do Next:

Take a scene (one of your own, or one from another work) and write the prose version of it. Distill all of the actions, behavior, and dialogue into Emotionally Charged Action Verbs. See how specific and colorful you can be.

If it’s a scene of your own, now go back and rewrite the scene, influenced by your new use of Emotionally Charged Action Verbs.

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Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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