Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
As you read through your scenes and manuscripts, it’s likely that you find sections that feel dull or lifeless even if they contain the action and events you intended to include in them, action and events that should move or should hold the reader’s attention.
It’s also likely that you may rewrite and move the scene elements around as a way to bring life to the scene. That option will work, but you should also try another option as well—substituting words. Rewording—literally substituting one word for another—can make the difference between ho-hum and vibrant, between a scene that’s near death and one that quivers with vibrant life.
Writers are often reminded to use active verbs and specific nouns, and I emphatically agree with that advice. In this article we’re going to consider verbs, but do remember to use specific nouns when you can and when using them doesn’t give a noun more attention that it needs.
Before we move to verbs, let’s consider a quick example of choosing the right noun.
People is generic and unspecific, and it gets a whole lot of use in manuscripts. Can it work? Sure, in some instances people may be the best word, both accurate and fitting. Yet more often than not, you or your characters are probably referring to a specific group of people and not people, humans, in general.
If you mean careless drivers, say so. If you mean college students, say so. If a character goes into a tirade against those who park in parking spaces reserved for the handicapped, put specifics into that character’s mouth.
“I’m tired of people parking in handicapped spots when they don’t need them.”
“I’m tired of insensitive asses parking in handicapped spots when they don’t need them.”
“I’m tired of losers parking . . .”
“I’m tired of jerks parking . . .”
Use word choice to color the scene, to add vibrancy. Use word choice for specificity. Use word choice to reveal the viewpoint character’s personality, background, and emotional state.
We have to choose the right words for every sentence in our fiction, thousands and thousands of word choices over the course of a story, so it’s easy to understand why we sometimes settle for common or inexact words.
And in the case of verbs, there are only so many of them, so of course we’ll use the common verbs, those everyday workhorse verbs, again and again.
Other reasons we use common verbs?
• We get tired of looking for a different verb. We get tired of being ultrapicky. After many hours, days, and months of work, we may even start to believe that being accurate and picky doesn’t matter, that close enough is actually good enough.
• We don’t want to be accused of using fancy words, of prettying up our prose, so we often stick to the basics.
• We actually don’t want to use pretentious words.
• We know that some verbs won’t cause problems so we use them without a lot of thought and instead spend our time looking for stronger nouns or for ways to change word order and sentence patterns to manipulate a sentence’s impact.
The thing is, verbs can be the key to any scene. The right verb can create movement and emotion. It can make the static dynamic. And using the wrong verb—or failing to use the right one—can make all the difference between a so-so scene and a stellar one.
Verb choices, one verb layered onto the previous verb and then linked to the one that follows, can direct a story in the direction you want it to go, creating the impression you want to create, or those choices can sink your story.
Verbs are the power words of a story, and you should learn to apply them to create the effects you want to create.
Don’t be shy about unleashing verbs to good effect. Don’t hesitate to use a strong verb, to link a string of verbs. On the other hand, don’t hesitate to hold back, to keep some of that explosive power in reserve.
Not every sentence needs an explosive verb. Sometimes you want a rumble. Sometimes a whisper. Only Sometime a blowout.
Learn the power of verbs and recognize when verb choice needs attention in your own writing.
What Verbs Do
We learned early on that verbs show motion and emotion, so verbs are closely linked to characters. This means that we can use verb choices to reveal a character’s personality, background, and emotional state, and most especially of the viewpoint character or speaker.
We can also use verbs to paint pictures of characters—the way they move and the speed at which they move.
Let’s look at a basic example using the verb sit.
She sat on the couch.
She flopped down on the couch.
She perched primly on the couch.
She lolled on the couch.
Sit is a workhorse verb that gets a lot of play in fiction. But is sit always the right verb? Does it reveal anything about the character who is using it (in dialogue or in thought)? Does it reveal anything about the character who is doing the sitting?
In our first example sentence, sit simply relays information. There is a time for that, for not adding flavor or color but simply presenting information. And yet not every verb should be common or bland or neutral. Not every verb should be absent a trace of emotion or the hint of a character’s personality.
The character who describes another character as perching reveals something about both of those characters. We’re able to see the way the sitting character holds herself and we see the viewpoint character’s personality and/or emotional state through his word choice.
Substituting another word for sit, for any common verb, helps focus a scene. It may even change the mood of the scene. A more exact word will definitely bring characters and action into clearer focus.
Verbs help readers see the motion and the emotion involved in a scene. Verbs do for the written word what the camera does for films—they show what’s going on with a particular character.
We typically think of motion verbs as a way to show what a character is doing, but they’re actually a reflection of what a character is feeling or thinking. A character who races out of an important meeting with her boss after getting a phone call from her child’s school isn’t practicing her running skills. She’s thinking and/or feeling something that is clearly revealed through her actions.
Choose verbs with care and deliberation as a means of adding life and power to your scenes.
Another example, this time featuring the verb walk.
Harris walked across the room to look out the window.
Harris shuffled across the room . . .
Harris hopscotched across the room . . .
Harris hurried across the room . . .
Harris hustled across the room . . .
Harris tiptoed across the room . . .
Harris strode across the room . . .
Harris crossed the room . . .
Hands cupping the glass, Harris peered out the window.
Walk is another common verb used often. Sometimes it’s the perfect word, a near-invisible one that serves a purpose and then allows characters and readers to easily move on, but often it’s a placeholder that never gets rewritten. Too many placeholder verbs can make a scene and a story dull.
Use placeholders in early drafts when you don’t want to slow down to deliberately search for the perfect word. But replace placeholders with more specific words when you rewrite. When you learn more about a character, you can substitute words that he or she would use in a given circumstance. You will likely end up refining word choice in every draft, up to the moment your story goes to print.
When your characters are in motion, show them moving. Give readers a sense of how they move. Don’t overplay simple movements and actions, of course. But don’t underplay them either. Use specifics when specifics won’t get in the way or won’t attach too much importance to themselves.
In our example, how does Harris cross the room? Can the verb choice help us picture him? Or do we even need to see him cross the room? Maybe you too often show your characters performing common activities. Maybe instead of watching Harris cross the room, we should skip straight to him peering out the window, as in the final example.
Don’t hesitate to skip common actions that can be easily inferred. No, you don’t want readers confused about how a character got where he is, but a line of summary or exposition is sufficient in many instances.
Traffic was light, so Kim reached her office in less than twenty minutes.
Gavin, one hand gripping a towel at his waist, yanked open the front door just as the pounding began again.
We don’t need to see every step of Kim’s and Gavin’s journeys to know that they were in motion. While we usually remember this advice when we move characters great distances or through time, we often forget that we can skip these same steps when the scale is smaller. So we don’t always need to see Harris walking across the room. We can skip to him peering out the window or scooping up a toy from the floor without needing to see the intervening steps.
To check your verb choices, you have a few options. I suggest you try all of them.
• Search for common and overused verbs.
look, glance, walk, put, touch, sit, stand, reach
• Determine whether or not the action needs to be described.
• Determine whether or not the verb is too common or has been used too often throughout the story.
• Search for more accurate verbs, verbs that convey a more specific movement or emotion. Search for verbs that enhance, that deepen, or that change the scene’s mood.
• Search for a clearer word, one that immediately makes sense to readers.
• Search for a word that better fits the surrounding words in terms of meaning, sound, look on the page, and rhythm.
• Try multiple options. Rather than say she touched his cheek, try stroked or rubbed or tapped. Rather than Lisa put the book on the desk, try dropped or tossed or aligned. See which is the best fit with the other scene elements.
• Echo the use of verbs from other scenes that a character is in as a way to link the scenes. This could mean you use the same verb—but maybe for a different kind of movement or emotion—or you use a verb from the same family of verbs. (Or maybe you use a verb form of a noun you used earlier as your echo.) In this way characters are kept consistent throughout a story and readers are reminded of earlier scenes. Readers are reminded not only of events from other scenes, but of the emotional impact of those scenes.
When you purposely link scenes through word choices, be careful not to overemphasize the links. Think light touch rather than a heavy hand.
• Be alert to the need to make other changes once you change a verb. You may no longer need some modifiers or even other phrases containing action or movement once you change a verb.
• Always be aware of who the viewpoint character is. Use words that reflect his mental state, his emotions, his personality, his background and education, and his feelings toward the character or object he’s observing. Make sure verbs fit not only what he sees and what he’s going through, but his knowledge of words.
Use verbs to make characters come to life, to put them in motion in a way that readers can see.
Use verbs to make characters unique. Some verbs fit one character more than another, and some verbs could never be used for or with or about certain characters. Be deliberate in your choices. Imagine clothing your characters in verbs that reflect them.
I’m not suggesting that you use fancy three- or four-syllable verbs in place of plainer verbs. I am suggesting that you use verbs with punch, verbs that contain a clear or specific sense of movement or emotion or impact.
This advice isn’t about substituting the fancy for the common but about substituting the specific for the general. So we don’t need to substitute perambulate for walk, although tiptoe might be just right.
You should already be rooting out common or lackluster verbs as part of your self-editing practices anyway, but when you’re studying a scene and looking for ways to increase the impact of an event, searching for a way to convey what’s truly going on, investigate verb choices. And go for the specific rather than the general.