What Every Songwriter Needs to Know About … Verbs?
What sound like boring grammar lessons can actually be of vital importance to your songwriting.
Static verbs can wreck your songs, turning them into humdrum babble. Dynamic verbs, on the other hand, draw others into the story.
What’s the difference? Dynamic verbs describe action. Examples include run, slay, fall and lift. Static verbs refer to a condition or a state of being (am, was, were, believe, see, hear, seem, love, hate). Some verbs, like feel, can work as a dynamic or static verb. In Carol King’s,
“I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, tumbling down,”
feel is dynamic. If she’d written,
“I feel excited and nervous around you,”
she’d have wielded feel as a static verb. Which version do you prefer?
Dynamic verbs often show us scenes; static verbs tell. In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, Constance Hale says,
“Stasis certainly has its place — whether to express the agitated question, “Who am I?” or to make the calmer declaration, “I am Cordelia’s father.” But Static Verbs underscore stasis. They lack punch. Dynamic Verbs, on the other hand, whistle your way, sidle up to you, and demand your attention. So Dynamic Verbs, natch, make writing a thrill to read.”
Hymn writer, Isaac Watts, knew a thing or two about dynamic verbs. Check out these lines from “O Help My Unbelief” (Andrew Osenga arranged and wrote new music for this, which Indelible Grace recorded in the studio, and which Sojourn recorded live in a concert hall):
Stretch out Thine arm, victorious King,
My reigning sins subdue;
Drive the old dragon from his seat,
With all his hellish crew.
Simple, dynamic verbs like stretch, subdue and drive bring this scene to life in your mind.
When Brooks Ritter and I wrote the song of confession and repentance, “Lead Us Back,” I didn’t want to lessen the impact of confession by hiding behind static constructs so I used colorful dynamic verbs:
Now we plead before Your throne,
Power sings a siren tune
We’ve been throwing heavy stones,
Lead us back to life in You.
Static verbs creep into my writing all the time when I’m working on a first draft, so I hunt them down and root them out in revisions. You should too. As Hale says,
“Static verbs pour out naturally when we write — is clutters most first drafts. And we often combine the static be with a clunky phrase; as in, for example, be applicable to rather than finding a strong simple verb like apply. Why use be desirous of when the alternative is so much more urgent (like, “I long for my sweetie to return”)? Why say be supportive of when saying it differently puts weight behind our words (“We support the schools!”)?
“A sportswriter once referred to the method of a celebrated pitcher as a ‘working of the art.’ For writers ‘working the art’ means going back and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting — replacing static verbs with dynamic ones.”
Sometimes static verbs can work. See how Bill Gaither relies more on static than active verbs, yet still creates a magnificent scene in the third verse of “The King Is Coming”:
I can hear the chariots rumble,
I can see the marching throng
As the fury of God’s trumpet
Spells the end of sin and wrong;
Regal robes are now unfolding
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir is now assembled,
Starts to sing “Amazing Grace”!
So how do you decide when to use static verbs? And do dynamic verbs guarantee your song will work? Ask yourself these questions from Hale:
“Do you want to sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it? (In which case, go ahead and use is.) Or do you want to plunge your subject into a little drama? (Pick a Dynamic Verb.) Many writing teachers argue that you should always prefer dynamic verbs, and I tend to agree. But it’s not enough just to scrap is, was, were, becomes and seems. You need to scrutinize your dynamic verbs. Has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but what do they tell us? Do they entertain us so much that we can’t wait to read the next sentence?”
Now start cranking out some songs overflowing with dynamic verbs and well-chosen static ones.