Verbs, you sexy things you. I love you. Marry me.
I could sing you sonnets about how much I appreciate verbs. It is the single most effective word to create change in your sentence. Don’t believe me. Watch this magic trick!
Sally May walked across the cafeteria and said, “What are you doing?”
Change the verbs and PRESTO:
Sally May stormed across the cafeteria and snarled, “What are you doing?”
How did you imagine Sally May in the first sentence. Passive? Easy-going? Everything is chill and fine. With two words, I’ve completely changed the feel of the entire situation. Now, Sally is clearly angry, and it’s about to go down.
We talk a lot of about adjectives and whether or not you should kill adverbs with fire, but let me tell you: Verbs are where it’s really at. Am I against adjectives and adverbs? Absolutely not! (See there!) Their role is indispensable. But they aren’t always needed, and verbs always are. (If you're not using verbs in your sentence, we need to have another conversation altogether).
Your writing can be stronger with choosing verbs more thoughtfully and intentionally (there are those adverbs again!).
Here are five ways that you can use verbs to improve your writing.
#5: IT CAN MAKE YOUR WRITING MORE CONCISE.
After having to edit a book from 150,000 words to 99,000 (KILL ME!), I am now a big believer that if you can say something in five words instead of ten, you should say it that way. To do this, we must force every word to work hard. We cannot do this without using an active verb that pulls its weight.
Take this passage from my own rough draft, unedited:
Original: Brianna sweeps angrily at a stray tear and steps determinedly through the door.
Ugh, I cringed when I read this one. All those -ly
With a little edit:
Edited: Brianna swats at a stray tear and strides through the door.
The same thing that the above GIF says about adjectives is true of verbs. Brianna doesn't step determinedly. She strides. Strengthening a single verb can eliminate one or two or even more unnecessary words.
#4: IT CAN EXPRESS CHARACTER PERSONALITY.
Let’s imagine a new character is walking onto stage this very moment. How are they walking? What does that tell you about them? Let’s play around with some verbs, and see how we can help our readers get to know our character just with the right verb.
Sophia prances onto the stage.
What does this say about Sophia? She’s lively, confident, fun, maybe even a little conceited. But in that first sentence, we have an idea of the kind of person Sophia is. Now let’s change the verb.
Sophia trudged onto the stage.
Now who is Sophia? Sad, glum, maybe. She certainly doesn’t want to be here on this stage.
Think about your character. Are they the kind to sweep, dance, sashay, saunter, stomp, toddle, meander, stroll?
How about the way they talk? Do they sing, groan, chatter, drawl, drone, squeak? Do they laugh, giggle, snicker, roar, crow?
Each of the words brought an image of some type of personality to your mind. You show your reader more with the right verb, than a paragraph of telling.
Which brings us into the next point…
#3: THE RIGHT VERB CAN SHOW, INSTEAD OF TELL.
We always hear it over and over again. Show, don’t tell. And I'll be the first to say 'Yeah, but' ... Sometimes telling is necessary, but showing should be the prominent choice.
Even though there is a lot more to showing then verbs, they go a long way in showing vivid imagery. Make them do some grunt work.
Her heart was sad.
Terrible...in so many ways. Let's fix it.
Her heart sank.
This went from telling us an emotion to showing us the emotion. We all know the feeling of our heart sinking.
A tip from a professional editor: A professional editor recently advised me that, though it’s not always possible to get rid of ‘was’, you should when you can. By getting rid of ‘was’ in the verb, a sentence will grow stronger.
#2: IT CAN MAKE A SCENE MORE INTENSE.
Just as I showed in the beginning of this article, verb choice can impact the intensity of the sentence, as well as the emotion and the atmosphere that is being expressed. Let’s take a fight scene for example.
Lancelot placed the sword into the dragon's heart.
This is sort of intense, but when we change the verb:
Lancelot plunged his sword into the dragon’s heart.
Did your pulse rate pick up a little more? Mine did.
Here's another example:
The car went toward the exit.
The car raced toward the exit.
In the first one, we can't tell that there is a sense of urgency at all, but it's made clear in the edited version. One word, and the scene became more intense.
#1: LAST BUT NOT LEAST…IT SETS MOOD (atmosphere and emotion)
But…but…but that’s what adjectives are for right. Yeah, okay, but check out these verbs!
Just like expressing character personality through verb choice, you can tell a lot about emotion.
She sat down in the chair with an exhausted sigh.
This isn't a bad sentence at all, but it's not as effective as it could be. Plus it requires naming the emotion, instead of showing it.
She collapsed into the chair with a sigh.
Look at what that one edit did. I was able to express emotion, create brevity (deleted two words), and show, instead of tell.
This same trick can help a lot with atmosphere as well.
Original: The rain was on the window.
I trust that you all understand the problem. It’s telling, instead of showing. It creates a weak mental imagery and no atmosphere.
Edit 1: The rain trailed down the window.
The description makes me want to curl up by the window and gaze out like a widow remembering her lost lover.
Edit 2: The rain pounded against the window.
Change the verb, and suddenly I want to check the dark house for ax murderers.
This can be applied to anything you are describing. A wind that howls has a different feel than a wind that whispers. A radio that serenades has quite a different feel from a radio that screeches.
See! Don’t you just love verbs!
A few more brief tips to add on about verb usage.
· In the rough draft, I’m a big believer in writing without worrying that you’re saying it the right way. Don’t get hung up on verb choice at that point. If one comes to you, great! During the editing process is a great time to take a microscope to those verbs and ensure that they give the mood and the personality you want, and that they have all the power they can.
· Yes, it’s okay to use a thesaurus if you can’t find the word you’re looking for. But use words that people know and use frequently. I would rather read ‘She walked’ then read ‘She perambulated’.
· Don’t over-dramatize. Aim for the emotion/atmosphere/intensity that is appropriate for that scene. Sometimes, it is okay to simply say “They sat”. Sometimes, that’s exactly what they did.
I hope this helps all of you.
Until next time, happy writing!