|Cindy Troy has been an English instructor in both secondary and collegiate classrooms for over twelve years.
She has both a bachelors and masters degree in English education. She was born and raised in Arizona, but recently moved to the small town of Henderson, Kentucky, where she now resides with her husband of 13 years and her two beautiful daughters. She currently teaches at Henderson County High School, and recently opened up her own editing business, Edited Write, to extend her skills beyond the classroom walls.
Actually, if you’re a bit of a language expert, you know there is no question: you don’t ‘is’. If you’re not a bit of a language expert, you’re probably wondering what ‘is-ing’ is and whether or not it’s a lot of fun. While you’re pondering that thought, keep reading, because this article was written for you.
When we talk of “is”, we talk of linking verbs. Now don’t moan. Just because I used a technical grammar term doesn’t mean you need to stop reading because you’ve hated English since the sixth grade when you were forced to do worksheets. This will be painless, I promise. Linking verbs are simply that: verbs that link. You’re probably already familiar with the idea of verbs as actions. She swam across the pool. He read the book. These are all behaviors that can be acted out, thus called action verbs. But linking verbs are different. There is no action; rather, they link a subject with its description.
Consider the following sentence: “She is tired.” Now find the verb in this sentence. Having trouble? That’s because there is no action in this sentence. “She” is clearly the subject; and “tired” isn’t an action. So that leaves us with “is”. And yet, you know that “is” isn’t an action either. A person can’t spend the day “is-ing” with her friends. So let’s look again at the definition of a linking verb: a verb that links a subject with its description. Here’s that sentence again: She is tired. “She” is the subject; “tired” is the description of “she”; and “is” links them together.
See how that works? Let’s do it one more time just to be sure.
Look at this sentence: “I seem insecure to some people.” What’s the verb in this sentence? I’ll get you started. “I” is the subject. Now find the description of “I”. Yep, it’s “insecure to some people”. Now what word links them together? Yea for you! It’s “seem”. “Seem” is the linking verb in this sentence. It links the subject with its description. So now you know two linking verbs: ‘is’ and ‘seem’. Let’s look at some more.
Now that you clearly understand the difference between a linking and an action verb, I’m going to spice things up a bit by showing you a couple of exceptions. There are some words that could be either a linking verb or an action verb, depending on how they’re used in the sentence. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath; this will make sense, I promise. Take the word “looks”. A person can definitely look. I’m doing it right now; so are you. This is clearly an action. However, take the word “looks” in this sentence: She looks happy today. Is “looks” an action in this sentence? Nope. The subject (She) is not looking at anything. Rather, “looks” in this sentence is linking the subject with its description (happy). Let’s do another one. Look at this sentence: “That fish smells funny.” The verb is “smells”. But is it linking or action? Ask yourself this question: Is the fish smelling anything? No he isn’t. Rather the word “smells” is linking the subject (the fish) with its description (funny), making “smells” the linking verb in that sentence. So we can clearly add to our list of linking verbs above. Words like: feel, look, smell, sound, etc. can be added to the list if they are linking the subject with its description.
Now the big question: How does this apply to you as a screenwriter? As you know, screenwriting is all about dialogue and action. It’s not about description. Think of it like this: is what I’m writing in my screenplay able to be photographed or recorded? Action can be photographed and dialogue can be recorded, but description can only be imagined. So instead of writing: “She was happy”, write: “She leaped around the room, flailing her arms in glee like a child.” This gives the actor an action to perform instead of imagining what “happy” looks like. Instead of writing: “The man was clearly exhausted”, write: “The man sank to his knees and allowed his head to fall forward in exhaustion.” Again, this tells your actor what action to take.
So after spending all this time reading about recognizing linking verbs, I’m telling you not to use them. Think of them as poison to your screenplay. No director shouts Lights! Camera! Link! No, you want action; you need action; and your subject needs to be performing — after all, that’s what screenwriting is all about.