How To Choose Strong Verbs

RamonaGravitarAfter I decided to write a How To post every day for the month of May, I declared my intention to writer friends and colleagues and asked for topic suggestions. This is one of them:

“Use stronger verbs rather than modifiers.  People say don’t use …LY words, but they don’t explain why. The real task is using a more descriptive verb.”

What is a verb?

A verb is a word that shows action, being or doing.

Verbs drive the narrative of a story; verbs control pace, determine tension, reveal secrets. It is a hefty job, so selecting a strong verb to perform the sentence’s task is not a willy-nilly undertaking.

How do you choose a strong verb for every sentence? By breaking down word choice into three areas of consideration: Task, Precision and Structure

In every sentence, a verb performs a job. To make a good verb choice, think about the task to be performed. Second, choose a verb specific to the task. Finally, construct the sentence in a direct and powerful way so the verb is not impeded in its duty.

  1. Verb Task – What do characters commonly do in stories? They walk, run, climb, sit, jump, look, think, grab, pull, throw. This list could go on and on. To illustrate, let’s use the verb walk.

Walk is a good example for two reason. First, it’s common and universal. Second, it’s so common and universal, writers try not to use it, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good.

Here’s a task: We need to get a man to cross a courtyard to get to a gate, and he can’t walk there.

~ He went across the courtyard to the gate. Really? Visualize this. Tell me what “went” looks like.

~ He moved across the courtyard to the gate. Moved? Like, drifted? Packed up his suitcase so he could live closer to the gate?

~He approached the gate from across the courtyard. Hmm. Approach means to come or go near, but there is nuance to approach, a sense of intention. There must be something special at the gate, if he’s taking the trouble to approach it. So, if he gets to the gate and nothing special is there, the word is misleading.

Which leads to the next consideration:

  1. Precision –  Why do we want him across the courtyard to the gate? What’s going on in the story that, first, requires him to be near the gate and, second, can be heightened by a strong verb?

If there is an emergency near gate, he would run, sprint, hustle, dash, rush, bound.

If there is danger near the gate, he would creep, tread, sneak, tiptoe, steal, skulk, scuttle.

If there is an attractive woman near the gate, he would saunter or swagger, amble or meander, depending on his level of confidence.

There are many choices for the word walk, but not all walks are the same. Consider these homonyms: stroll, march, stride, tread, tramp. Visualize them. Does stroll look like tramp? No. Each verb is a precise way of walking. As such, each verb adds something else to the story. The guy still gets to the gate, but there is subtext to the verb choice that tells more.

One of my favorite illustrative examples of walking is the word lope. Close your eyes and picture a man loping across the courtyard to the gate. Now consider these questions:

~Is the man short or tall?

~Is he young or old?

~Is he healthy or infirm?

~Is he confident or timid?

~Is he worried or relaxed?

~Is there an emergency?

~Is he headed to a specific place or not?

Lope is great because it answers the above questions through implication–aka subtext.

Loping requires long legs, so the man must be tall. Loping requires strength to take long strides, so the man is probably young, healthy and confident. Loping is not slow but it is not hurried, so there is probably no emergency and he’s probably not worried. He may be headed to a particular spot and is walking in a determined fashion to get there, or he may be out for exercise. The last is hard to tell. Lope can only tell so much.

  1. Structure – A strong sentence construction gives power to all its parts. Write in the active voice. I have devoted two former posts on How To Be–or Not To Be–an Active Writer, part I and part II. Here are simple examples of active versus passive construction.

~ He rushed, instead of He was rushing.

~ He stalked, instead of He was stalking.

~ He plowed ahead, instead of He was plowing ahead.

~ He loped, instead of He was loping.

~ He walked, instead of He was walking.

Decide on the verb’s task. Find the word that best describes that task. Craft an active sentence and voila! You wrote a strong sentence.

To go back to the suggestion above and the comment about …LY words, think of this. If you are tempted to say someone walked quickly, don’t you mean he ran? If you write someone spoke loudly, don’t you mean she yelled? If you write someone cried piteously, don’t you mean they sobbed?

Choose a strong, precise verb and it will do the job on its own.

I dedicate this post to my friend and writing colleague, KB Inglee, who sent the suggestion at the top.


Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Prepare for a Writers Conference

6 thoughts on “How To Choose Strong Verbs

  1. . . . But we need adverbs for those Tom Swifty jokes: “Who would want to steal modern art?” asked Tom abstractedly.
    Excellent, active post — thanks for this series!


  2. Great post, Ramona! Getting characters from one place to another or any other kind of “choreography” is really difficult for me, perhaps what I struggle with most on the line-editing level, so it is enormously helpful to have the process analyzed and blocked out like this. Wonderful! I’m copying it for future reference.

    Thanks so much!


    1. Choreography is a challenge, especially when you have three of more characters. I once read a helpful piece about visualizing characters as chess pieces. I made sense–and I don’t even play chess! Thanks for stopping by, Nancy.


  3. Excellent post. Mind if I pose a question? I wrote a sentence: “He hurried across the courtyard, turning up his collar against the wind.” A member of a crit group said using -ing verbs is a major no-no and I should have said: “…his collar turned up against the wind.” But I want him to be in the act of turning up his collar as he goes, not with it already turned up. What do you think? Is the -ing verb a no-no?


    1. LD, yes and no. It is true that a gerund (-ing verb) is a more passive construction but I would not call it a “major no-no.” Writing in the active voice makes the action stronger, but as you point out in your example, the gerund might be more appropriate for this particular moment in the story.

      This is the trouble with cleaving too strongly to rules. If your writing is full of to be (was) verbs and gerunds, it’s not going to be as strong as it could be. But that doesn’t mean an all out ban is in place. If the moment in the story needs a gerund, be bold and use it. Don’t be frightened of breaking a “rule.”


      1. Thanks for the reply. I avoid using gerunds as the main action verb of the sentence (i.e. I was running.) but I tend to use them in descriptive clauses (I ran after him, gasping for breath). Not sure if that makes a difference in the whole rule-breaking thing or not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s