The Power of Good Verbs

Writers are told to make their verbs work for them–which means picking verbs powerful enough to stand without modifiers and adverbs like “very,” “slowly,” “quickly,” and the like.

But sometimes this can lead to distracting the reader, where the verb used is so particular, so unique, and so unusual as to send them to the dictionary or make them ponder the term longer than necessary. It isn’t always that important to the story to say “he contemplated” rather than “he thought.” Sometimes, the best verb is a simpler one, the one that gets out of the way and tells the story without holding the plot up.

For example:

He ran his fingers through his hair in a hurried gesture before opening the door to his boss’ office. She was there, sitting behind the desk in pristine glory, and the words he’d rehearsed in his head for days on end suddenly dried up like grass beneath a summer sky.

Versus:

He scraped his fingers through his hair before easing open the door to his boss’ office. She was there, poised behind the desk in pristine glory, and the words he’d meditated for days on end suddenly shriveled in his mind like grass beneath a summer sky.

The second example draws more attention to the verbs by having them be longer, more specific, and more elaborate, and this can be a good thing. “Scraped” is a lot more informative than “ran,’ and “poised” is more telling than just “sitting.” But it can be overdone.

He disentangled his hair with his fingers before inching the door to his boss’ office open. She occupied the space, garrisoned behind the desk in pristine glory, and the words he’d deliberated for days on end suddenly mummified in his mind.

Personally, I like the second one. It has just enough specificity to be interesting, though some of the terms, like “scraped” might even be too much. But the third one, for me, gets bogged down in verbs to where they’re longer than everything else, occupying more mind-time and no longer carrying the sentence forward. Their ponderous weight drags the story-momentum down until we lose the action of what’s truly going on, thanks to the specificity of said action.

And here’s my all-time favorite video from Lindybeige about the specificity of verbs and how they can get you into trouble.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

3 thoughts on “The Power of Good Verbs

  1. It’s a difficult balance. Verbs are vital to evocation, in my opinion. One carefully chosen verb can evocate a wealth of impressions, memories and images, and sometimes it’s worth it even if the verb is unusual.
    Besides, I don’t think we should be overly worried about the reader not understanding an unusual word. We writers learn unusual, specific words the same way readers do: by reading a lot 😉

    Like

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