In my mind, verbs are the words that make stories exciting and real. Taking the time to find the right ones can be the difference between a good story and a great one.Verbs are action words. If you can do it - walk, run, sing, dance - it’s a verb. And then there are those other verbs – am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had. In my day, we called them irregular verbs or helping verbs. They are states of being, as opposed to actions, and will do almost nothing for you. Avoid them if you can.
So let’s look at what choosing the right verb can do for you.John Smith went to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and John suddenly had the feeling that he was going to be lucky today.
This example is filled with those ‘other’ verbs, the irregular kind you don’t want to use.John Smith went to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon.
The verb here is went, which tells us – John went. But that’s all it tells us. It’s vague and uninteresting. So how did John really go? Did he skip, run, jog, stroll? Using any of those verbs will not only tell you how John went, they also say something about his state of mind, the kind of mood he’s in. Changing one word has just added more to this scenario.The sun was shining and the birds were singing, and John suddenly had the feeling that he was going to be lucky today.
Here are all those irregular verbs that don’t do anything but make the sentence passive and excessively long. Simply cut the irregular verbs and change the ‘ing’ verbs to ‘ed’ verbs.The sun shone, the birds sang, and John suddenly felt lucky.
The sentence has been shortened by half, the writing is cleaner and smoother to read, it’s active instead of passive, and because John is no longer ‘going to be,’ lucky, (which doesn’t tell us when, which is why we need ‘today’) we can even cut ‘today,’ because today is now implied.Which leaves us with –
John Smith strolled to the store on a lovely Saturday afternoon. The sun shone, the birds sang, and John suddenly felt lucky.Now let’s suppose we’re in the middle of an action scene. John, it seems, was not as lucky as he thought he’d be.
John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him. Two men entered, guns in hand. They wore ski masks that covered their faces. They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.The above example is informative, but that’s about it.
John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him.The verb gave is fine here. John is just handing over some money that isn’t at all important. But if you wanted to show us a bit of John’s personality, he might slap it on the counter, or count it coin by coin into the clerk’s hand. The verb opened, however, is too tame for the situation. Opened says anybody might be coming in, and there is no hint of danger. But if we change opened to an adverb and choose a better verb—the door burst, or crashed, or banged open—it makes the moment a bit bigger, it creates suspense, and the reader knows something is about to happen.
He turned.If the door only opens, then turning is fine. It fits the situation. But if we change opened to something stronger, then John’s reaction should be stronger, too. He might spin around.
Two men entered, guns in hand.Entered, like the verb open, isn’t strong enough to suit the situation. These guys are robbers and the door just burst open. They might charge, or rush, or barge in. If they are clumsy and stupid, they might stumble in. If they are reluctant robbers, they might inch in. Again, choosing the right verb will not only tell the reader what someone did, it can also tell us something about that individual. And while ‘guns’ is not a verb, the same holds true for nouns, so we night change ‘guns’ to a specific type of gun. An AK47 says one thing about your robbers, a Derringer says another.
We might also replace ‘in hand.’ Perhaps their guns are leveled, or threatening. Either verb makes the scene feel more dangerous.They wore ski masks that covered their faces.
Here we have two verbs that basically say the same thing and neither is all that interesting. We could say, ‘Ski masks hid their faces,’ which lends a bit of mystery to the scene.They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.
Pointed isn’t bad, but a gun pointed at your face doesn’t seem as dangerous as a gun aimed at your face. Nuance comes into play here. Pointed is threatening. The gun may, or may not, be fired. Aimed, however, is one step closer. It gives the sense that the gun is about to be fired. Or, instead of just pointing their guns, the robbers might nudge or shove John with them.So now, we might have a paragraph that reads like this –
John gave his money to the clerk and the door burst open behind him. He spun around. Two men charged in, AK47’s threatening. Ski masks hid their faces. They aimed their guns at John and the clerk.instead of like this -
John gave his money to the clerk and the door opened behind him. He turned. Two men entered, guns in hand. They wore ski masks that covered their faces. They pointed their guns at John and the clerk.Now imagine both versions sitting in a slush pile. An editor has to decide which one to purchase. The two scenarios are the same. The only difference is the few words we changed. Which do you think the editor would choose? That’s the difference between a perfectly good manuscript and a better one.
The example used could be improved even more, but the point today is the verbs. Take out some of your own work and look at the verbs you’ve chosen. Can they be improved? Can a different word make your sentence more exciting, or scary, or funny? Can it add something to characterization or setting?The competition in this field is fierce, so it makes sense to give yourself every advantage you can. Take the time to choose stronger verbs and make your manuscript the better one.