Write in verbs, not other parts of speech
Talk about painting a picture. In City of Bohane, Kevin Barry brings the titular town to life in sentences like this:
“Amputee walnut sellers
croaked their prices
from tragic blankets
on the scarred tile floors …”
“The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness
against the morning sky.”
“Now the city shimmered in the new morning’s light,
its skyline loomed in shadow …”
“The Hartnett seat was a Beauvista Gothical,
a gaunt and lumbering old pile, all elbows and chimneys.”
“He had a blackbird’s poppy-eyed stare, thyroidal,
and if his brow was no more than an inch deep,
it was packed with an alley rat’s cunning.”
Notice what these descriptive passages have in common: They set the scene with nouns and adjectives. When setting a scene, we tend to describe people and things.
But we need to show action, too.
1. Choose descriptive verbs.
If the verb is the story — and I think it is — then good description means choosing verbs as carefully as you choose nouns.
Light up readers’ brains. After all, we know that when people read strong action verbs like write and throw, their motor cortexes — the part of the brain that coordinates the body’s movements — light up, according to research by cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France.
When they read nouns like mill and cliff, their motor cortexes stay dark.
Even more interesting, one part of the motor cortex lights up when people read about arm movements, while a different part does when they read about leg action.
How can you choose verbs that light up your readers’ brains?
2. Test your copy.
First, find out how hard your verbs are working now:
1. Open your latest story and highlight all the verbs.
2. Scan the highlighted words. Ask, are these verbs:
- Sensual? Can you see, hear, feel, taste or smell them?
- Precise? Hobbled says something that meandered does not. But what picture does walked slowly paint?
- Distinctive? Avoid typical PR verbs like launches, announces and introduces. Instead, go for verbs that describe what your readers will be able to do differently after your launch.
- Active? Activate the passive voice.
- Strong? To be verbs are not to be.
- Short? When it comes to verbs, one syllable is best, two are OK and three are a little long. So choose one-syllable verbs whenever possible.
3. Rewrite your verbs. Finally, use Visual Thesaurus to come up with just the right substitute for your weak verbs.
3. Model the masters.
Now that you’ve checked out your own copy, find writers whose verbs inspire you. Highlight your favorite passages on your e-reader and review them when your writing feels a little wan.
Among my favorite verb masters:
Jeffrey Eugenides. In The Marriage Plot, he writes:
“A ficus tree endured in the corner.”
Thomas Penn. In Winter King, writes:
“Richard III arranged a marriage between one of his household knights and one of Edward IV’s daughters. Indeed, it was whispered that Richard himself was paying close attention to the oldest of them: his sixteen-year-old niece, Henry’s betrothed, Elizabeth of York. The rumours ‘pinched Henry by the very stomach.'”
Patrick deWitt. In The Sisters Brothers, writes:
“He nodded solemnly, but his show of bravado
soon gave way to passionate emotion; his face dropped
and tears began squirting from his eyes.”
Karen Russell. In Swamplandia!, she writes:
“Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water.”
“The pig frogs were throating their joy in the cattails.”
Markus Zusak. In The Book Thief, he writes:
“Farther down, the church aimed itself at the sky,
its rooftop a study of collaborated tiles.”
“‘You little slut!’ he roared at her.
The words clobbered her in the back.”
“The slippery ground slurped at their feet …”
” … the gun clipped a hole in the night.”
“The excitement stood up in her.”
“Liesel, from the hallway, could see
the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it,
the worried expression
scribbled like a mess onto Mama.”
4. Model the master master.
But my favorite verb master is Kevin Barry. This guy knows how to play with verbs — verbing nouns (hair pineappled on a girl’s head, for instance) and otherwise using them in unexpected ways.
In City of Bohane, he writes:
“See the dogs: their hackles heaped,
their yellow eyes livid.”
“Careful, she was, and a saucy little ticket
in her lowriders and wedge heels,
her streaked hair pineappled in a high bun.”
“It was hot on the El train — its elderly heaters juddered like halfwits beneath the slat benches.”
“Down along the boxcar, he saw the Authority man mouth a sadness through his sozzled half-sleep, most likely a woman’s name … The city unpeeled, image by image, as the El train screeched along De Valera: a shuttered store, a war hero’s plinth, an advert for a gout cure, a gull so ghostly on a lamp post.”
“An old man bothered a melodeon
as he stood on an upturned orange crate
and sang a lament for youth’s distant love.”
“The streets in dawn light thronged with familiar faces.”
“Even in the midst of the rain,
sunlight flashed from behind the cloudbank –
it peeped out for a few seconds at a time, skittish
as a young thing, and showed the colours of the rain.”
“Smoketown juddered. The girls called out
and the barkers hollered. Dreams were sold,
songs were gargled, noodles were bothered.”
“Up from the river an assault of wind came knifing
and it had a bone-deep chill in it for a sharpener.”
” … the city simmered now with bitterness, rage, threat.”
“And life tumbled on, regardless.”
5. More reasons to invigorate your verbs
Strong verbs make your description more descriptive. Other benefits of strengthening your verbs:
- You need fewer adverbs when you choose strong verbs.
- Benefits are verbs, not nouns.
- The verb is the story; strong verbs in the headline tell a better story.
Sources: Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012
Véronique Boulenger, Beata Y. Silber, Alice C. Roy, Yves Paulignan, Marc Jeannerod and Tatjana A. Nazir, “Subliminal display of action words interferes with motor planning: A combined EEG and kinematic study,” Journal of Physiology-Paris, Vol. 102, Issues 1–3, January-May 2008, pp. 130-136