Obliterating Five Ineffective Verbs for Actors

In determining our scene or line objectives, it is good practice to write (in pencil!) a verb next to the line in our script. That way, as we study our script and work in rehearsal, we can remind ourselves what exactly we are trying to accomplish. It becomes crucial, then, that this choice of verb is specific and rich with meaning. If our verb is vague and boring, our performance will be vague and boring. Writers toil over word choice for the same reasons.

Janine Duff, master word-slinger, challenges writers to tap into the power of the verb. Verbs, she says, take initiative.

Verbs don’t just grab eyeballs.They inspire your readers to act.

– Janine Duff

Or, in our case as actors, verbs inspire us to act!

I’ve landed on five common acting verbs that are okay, at best. Why are they a problem, and what are some more powerful alternatives? Let’s check them out:

(1) “to get [something]”

Why is it a problem?

“Getting” is either passive or vague. You “get” something either because someone gave it to you, or because you went out and “got” it. If you went out to “get it,” consider these descriptive verbs:

  • to elicit – drawing something out with intention, as if you are a step ahead and expect the outcome
  • to extract – implies using above-average skill to acquire something
  • to procure—with much care, effort, or time
  • Alternatively, consider if the full phrase you’re after has a more concise meaning. “To get you to…” can usually mean “To persuade you to…”, which we’ll discuss in just a moment.

(2) “to ask”

writing1Why is it a problem?

It’s obvious that the character is asking something because of the question mark at the end of the sentence. Asking a question is more than just an attempt to learn information. The “how” should also be considered:

  • to needle—think of tiny pin pricks. Many small, unassuming questions that individually are not too annoying, but over time become quite bothersome
  • to interrogate—looking for answers that the target wants to keep a secret, not always intimidating
  • to demand—while asking implies a choice, demanding leaves no choice for the target

(3) “to get you to like me”

Why is it a problem?

It’s not a terrible objective. But again, we can imply “how” we want to achieve this goal through our verb. And what exactly do we want the target to think about us? Consider these verbs:

  • to impress—displaying skill in action or words in order to win one’s favor
  • to curry favor—pulling strings and making small sacrifices
  • to brown-nose—wanting approval and affirmation at the cost of your dignity and truth
  • to seduce—using attractive lures in an attempt to bend one’s will to your own. Not always sexual.

(4) “to persuade”

Why is it a problem?

Persuasion can range from the snake’s whispers in the Garden of Eden to formal intellectual debate in a Greek forum. Consider these methods of persuasion:

  • to cajole—using flattery to change one’s mind or action. Friendly and casual.
  • to coax—more quiet and unassuming. The target may not even be aware of the persuasion
  • to exhort—an urgent, blatant, and sometimes desperate call to action

(5) “to leave”

Why is it a problem?

red-exit-sign.jpgRemember, an effective objective tries to change the other person. Your character may want to leave out of anger or exasperation, but until the playwright has actually written “[HE EXITS]”, another objective is being pursued. So, instead of “leaving,” consider your situation, and determine an action that fits the bill.

  • to shut you up
  • to have the last word
  • to get you to leave me alone
  • to hurt you like you’ve hurt me

Alright, you may not be a glowing wordsmith. Grammar may not arouse you like it does writers and your eighth grade English teacher. But being serious about this craft we call acting requires being able to know what a character wants to accomplish, and how to communicate that. Before we can communicate anything to an audience, we need to be able to communicate to ourselves. Vivid verbs help us do—I mean, accomplish—just that.

For twelve punchy verbs to consider for your script, check out this list!

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