How stronger verbs create moving stories

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The importance of verbs

The most important words in your writing are your action words. Yes, description matters a lot. Adjectives like luminous, decadent, crimson, overcast, melodramatic, soothing, pungent, or mysterious give emotion and power to our writing by painting a picture or establishing a tone for the reader. But verbs create movement and action.

So how can we make those action words, those verbs, work even harder for us? You may have been told to avoid adverbs, but you were never told why, or you just aren’t sure what adverbs do in the first place. Adverbs are basically any words that describe a verb. For example, I dearly love writing. Dearly is the adverb in this sentence.

Now, is there a verb that means “to love dearly”? What if I say, I adore writing? Does changing the verb and eliminating the adverb make the sentence better? Does it make a difference which way I write it? Well, that depends on what kind of reaction you want from your readers. 

Denotation vs. connotation

The first thing we have to talk about is the difference between denotation and connotation. Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is the emotional reaction that the word elicits.

For example, the word scent and the word odor technically mean the same thing. They are synonyms with a shared denotation. The word scent has a pleasant connotation, maybe the aroma of lavender or fresh-baked bread. The word odor has a negative connotation, something that smells bad, that stinks, like when the dog gets sprayed by a skunk or the garbage sits out in the hot sun. You probably wouldn’t say, the odor of lavender or the scent of skunk, right? Our word choice is going to influence the emotional reactions in our readers.

Adverbs are generally the l-y words that we find around verbs that describe what that verb is doing or how it’s doing it. Example: He walked quickly. In that sentence, quickly is the adverb.

So what other ways can we say He walked quickly without using an adverb, and how do they make us feel? He hurried. He ran. He marched. He bolted. He sprinted. We have several different ways to say the same thing, and each of those options reveals something about the “he” character. They share a denotation, but have varied connotations. Marched might suggest a soldier, or someone directed by an authority figure. Hurried will make us wonder why he’s hurrying, if he’s late for work or just by nature a frantic or hurried type of person. Bolted makes us think someone has been startled or feels a sense of urgency. Sprinted is a runner’s word. All of these verbs are stronger than simply walked, and they all incorporate the quickness without using the adverb quickly.

Moving the reading physically and emotionally

The important thing to think about in terms of denotation and connotation with adverbs is that every word that we choose needs to physically move the plot along or reveal something important about the character that is emotionally moving. The reader needs to learn the mannerisms, motivations, and habits of the characters, and we learn those aspects by observing how the characters move through their world, and how they move us. 

If I said He slithered down the hallway, that's different than He marched down the hallway. And both of them are different from He moved stealthily down the hallway. The most specific verb you can choose probably doesn’t have an adverb after it. The most specific verb you can choose will be working harder and conveying a more accurate description of that character's state of mind and that character's goal.

A writing exercise

When you're revising your sentences, when you're going back and making more specific verb choices, it will help to have a clear idea of what your character is feeling or what they're trying to accomplish in that scene. Really use those verbs to give the reader something to react to and follow. This is how we connect the characters to the reader.

Give it a try with this paragraph. Find the adverbs, then think about the verbs that precede them and how you can make them more specific to eliminate the need for the adverbs.

She walked carelessly out the front door and stood on the porch. She slowly looked at the stars and thought about where her dog was. Across town, her dog was trying hard to get food from the old man who regularly sat outside Joe's Pub.

Feel free to share your revised paragraph in the comments or in the community section of Wet Ink, if you’re a current student.

Happy verbing!

What did you think of Teneice’s lesson on verbs and adverbs? Will you incorporate this practice to strengthen your verbs? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Write to connect with readers and be remembered

Take the writing road less traveled to avoid repetition

How creating a backstory can propel your character forward

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