strong verbs

Strong Verbs

Sometimes words ruin everything. —Jesikah Sundin

The reader’s eye scans symbols on a page. Words, the right words, invoke the spell. He doesn’t know how he entered the otherworld, but his eyes assure him he did. The otherworld bombards his senses. Neither texture nor weight acknowledges the book in his hands. The reader flips the page. He, though, is not the reader. He has become the witness.

Writing is magic. Practitioners understand it as a visual art. The writer paints with words, molds her words, chisels her words. And her words fit together, muscle to bone. What she has made can inhabit and be inhabited.

Good writing casts illusions that manifest the properties of the worlds we have known—all that is fierce and vivid, pungent, loud, searing, and sublime. Our illusions, the worlds we create, must be sensory. Above all, they must be visual. Writing is a visual art.

Show me. Show me vivid, pungent, loud, searing. Show, show, show. You’ll hear the imperative repeated often. Writing is 100% show. You must train yourself to think in images, not abstracts, not concepts, not words with meaning but no picture. Showing is the alchemy that transforms our words. Let’s work the magic.

Alan Moore—

To me, the ultimate act of magic is to create something from nothing: It’s like when the stage magician pulls the rabbit from the hat.

Amy Tan—

Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power.

Ernest Hemingway—

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.

The verb is supreme, the foundation of good writing. Verbs drive the narrative. Strong verbs enhance tone, setting, and allude, even, to the implications of the action.

Here’s an example that does all of these. From Edward Marriott’s article, How did I end up becoming a novelist?

It is at this point that many would-be writers…might have mothballed their dream in favour of a sensible job. —The Observer, Saturday February 28 2009

Marriott could have written given up, quit, packed up, surrendered, etc. Any of these would have worked, though quit and surrendered, as single words, move faster and therefore hit harder. But mothballed? Mothballed rips a hole in the ozone. Mothballed takes the reader to forgotten closets and cobwebbed dreams. By extension, we can imagine the would-be writer locked away in storage while his slumped-shoulder double sits in a cubicle beneath fluorescent lights. Among strong verbs, mothballed is a superhero.

The goal is to hunt down the Schwarzenegger of verbs, to choose one action that conveys more than the rest. The same holds for the writer’s every word. Show the most with the least. Show, show, show. Tell the reader nothing.

If you want people to read your writing, you need to command attention. You need to populate mindscapes with sights and sounds. Choose strong verbs.

He went down the street.

The above sentence works as a response to the question Where’d he go? You can drop the verb from a line of dialogue—Down the street—which illustrates its value. Went is a wasted breath, a nothing verb. Suppose he ran down the road. Better. How about staggered? Or strutted? Maybe he tiptoed, hobbled, scudded, or slunk. But let’s say our mystery man was in a rush.

He took off hastily.

Although you would never write that line, let’s assume someone did. Here’s where I would sit this someone down for a lecture on -ly adverbs. A weak verb bolstered by an adverb does not constitute a strong verb. It remains weak but tied to a neon sign. The practice is uninspired, gradeschool. Stop believing in your –ly adverbs.

  1. Show the most with the least. A strong verb doesn’t need an adverb.
  2. Tell your readers nothing. Hastily is telling. You’re telling readers how he took off.

Magic, remember? Writing casts illusions? Sometimes words ruin everything. An –ly adverb propping up a verb kills the drama. Maybe you chose a doozy of an adverb, but no matter. Better to leave the lame verb alone. (I’d keep reading if you wrote, He went down the road. I’d stop if you wrote, He went lazily down the road.) If you break the spell, if you remind the reader that he’s reading, you lose him.

Choose one action that shows took off hastily. Fled, bolted, split, hightailed it, hotfooted it, scrammed—each of these paints a different picture. Each of these verbs stands alone, without need of modification. The reader flows in the visual. The magic carries him.

The same goes for The stranger ate rapidly. Search your work for –ly adverbs and rewrite the verb duo. How about gobbledscarfedsopped up… wolfed…? Notice I didn’t include inhaled. Avoid imagery that has become cliché. And don’t allow habit to blind you. Look for redundancy.

  • He devoured quickly.
  • She nibbled slowly.
  • It exploded violently with a loud bang. (redundant2)

Look also for nondescript verbs like walk, cry, fall, touch. Does the situation call for plod, wail, collapse, caress? Choose variety. Rather than writing turn for the umpteenth time, consider angle, crane, or wheel around. Instead of confuse, try puzzle, baffle, stump, fluster, muddle, or better still, show confusion in gestures.

Verbs in unusual context amplify their effect.

  • “… smell her own capitulation coming on.” Ann Patchet, State of Wonder
  • “… her blue eyes quirked at the inner corners as if she were worried about something.” Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons: A Novel
  • “… the crappy mini-blinds were felted with dust.” Carol Anshaw, Carry the One
  • The quietness of his tone italicized the malice of his reply. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  • Bruises used to trophy my knees… Clementine von Radics, In Defense of Loving Him

Be creative. Rather than boasting, trumpeting, or grandstanding—all strong verbs—consider chest-thumping or cock-a-doodle-doing. Refit a descriptive noun into a verb.

  • Instead of avoiding the truth, write hot-potatoing the truth.
  • Instead of losing to him, write He checkmated me.
  • Instead of being kicked by a horse, write the horse tattooed my ass.
  • Instead of someone walking seductively, have her Mae-Westing her wares.
  • Instead of someone looking for sympathy, say he’s pity-fishing.
  • Instead of arranging her hair… she saliva-thumbed her bangs.
  • Instead of singing… tra-la-la-ing a familiar tune.
  • Maybe so-and-so isn’t chest-thumping. Maybe success has her ponytail-swinging?

Leif Enger, in Peace Like a River, describes a tornado that touched down in the center of town as “a strong slender lady hip-walking through campus.” It’s visual and unexpected. In Leaving Atocha Station, Ben Learner wrote a scene where “helicopters beat the air”. A simple verb and it nears perfection, recalling the whapping we both hear and feel.

So how do these writers do it? How do they come up with original, sensory—strong verbs?


What do I want to write? Most of us ponder that question for some time, and some of us ponder it after every sentence we write. The question, though, disserves the goal. The question isn’t What do I want to write? The question is What do I see?

Here’s the secret to vivid writing? Enter the scene. Don’t think, look. Don’t think, listen. Don’t think, feel… smell… taste.

He went down the road.

Okay, but you’re standing on the sidewalk watching him. You know whether the sky is overcast or the sun is burning down on our mystery man. He isn’t a mystery to you. You know where he’s been, where he’s going, what he’s wearing, what he’s carrying. You know his state of mind. You know his aches and needs. Tell us how this individual made his way the road. Put yourself in his shoes and feel what he feels.

Forget about the words for a moment and visualize. If you want your readers to transcend the page, you must transcend. You must let your ideas play out like a film in your head. You must engage the content you’d like to convey. Enter the scene. Don’t think, look. Don’t think, listen.

How did Edward Marriott come up with the verb mothballed? I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you what I think. I can tell you what works for me. I suspect Edward Marriott put himself in the would-be novelist’s shoes and felt what he felt. An established writer, Marriott knows the risks and setbacks and nail-baiting inherent to banking on a career in writing. Like any of us, I imagine he contemplated quitting, weighed the pros and cons every time success eluded him. I’d say, putting himself in the would-be novelist’s shoes resurrected the doubts that had plagued him. But, he wondered then and perhaps now, how could he surrender his passion? He couldn’t. That would be an act of betrayal, a surrendering of himself, his true self. I’d bet Marriott’s article evolved from using the word quit to surrendered to mothballed as his emotional experience revived. With the idea of packing up his dream, locking himself away in storage, the word mothballed came to him. He wasn’t searching for a better word. The association emerged with the feelings he engaged.

Writing is about experience, emotion. Writing is sensory or it isn’t read by others.

Create a Verb Thesaurus

When strong verbs come to mind, jot them down. Make a note of those you encounter while reading. Keep the file updated and refer to it.

Some examples to start your thesaurus—


Words can show. Too many words, or the wrong word, remain words.

Stephen King—

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

Samuel Johnson—

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

Larry L. King—

Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read.

Ray Bradbury—

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist