Every book, short story, or script relies on good word choice. When you’re trying to tell a story, sometimes the hardest thing to do is deciding which word to use. Verbs hold all your story’s action, so what better place to start?
As a young writer, I knew how to put words together, and I spent a lot of time focusing on the “right” way to make a story. Perfect structure, perfect character arcs, and a well-developed setting. But it wasn’t until I learned how to up my word choice game that I started to see results.
These techniques took my writing from the bottom of the pile to first place in multiple competitions and contests. All it takes is three easy steps that will take just minutes to complete.
Before we explore the tips that revolutionized my writing game, make sure to follow this blog for more content about story crafting, delivered right to your email inbox. It’s free, and always will be!
Alright, so without further ado, let’s explore three easy ways to find the perfect verbs for your story.
1. Examine the Motives
As writers, we all know how important it is to remember a character’s motivation. (Or we should know how important it is. Tip: it’s important.)
However, do we remember our own motivations while we write?
And no, I’m not talking about the motivating factors for why we create stories. I mean your motives for writing this particular scene:
- Why is this scene important to the plot?
- What should the reader feel at the beginning of the scene?
- What emotions should the reader feel at the end of the scene?
- Which character(s) does the reader relate to the most?
As storytellers, we need to make sure that the reader experiences emotion in every scene, even if the emotions are small. When you know what you want the reader to feel, you can begin using specific words to manipulate the story how you want.
For example, let’s say your main character’s name is Bobby, and he learns that his daughter Meg just broke up with her boyfriend, the sleezy dude she met in high school. Bobby always knew his daughter deserved better. So when Meg reveals the news with tears in her eyes, Bobby feels sorry for her, but he also feels relieved, because he won’t have to watch his daughter suffer anymore.
In order to elicit the right emotions in this scene, you need to realize what your goals for this scene are. Otherwise, it’s easy for the reader to get the wrong impression.
In addition to emotions…
Is your story action-packed? A sweeping romance? A poetic story reflecting on the fragility of life? Keep your genre in mind, and what kinds of words will fit that genre.
The first step in creating perfect word choice is to figure out what you, the storyteller, want to accomplish. So grab a piece of paper and jot down:
- What emotions does the reader have after reading the last scene (if applicable)?
- How should the reader react to this scene? How does it make them feel?
- What stylistic vibes does this story have overall? (Active or poetic?)
2. Write With Inspiration
Sounds cliche, I know. But the saying still holds true– you can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.
Perfect word choice isn’t something that comes overnight, it’s a part of storytelling that takes practice. Step two requires the scene to be written, so we can go back through and fix it. So go write something!
In the meantime, here’s a couple of resources that I’ve found to be super helpful while I’m writing:
- WordHippo: https://www.wordhippo.com/ (Thesaurus, translations, rhyming dictionary, and resources for finding good words)
- 277 Action Words to Supercharge Your Writing: https://bobangus.com/action-words/ (Great list of strong, active verbs to get you started.)
- Master List of Gestures and Body Language: https://www.bryndonovan.com/2015/04/10/master-list-of-gestures-and-body-language-for-writers/ (Helpful for dialogue tags.)
Before I start writing, I like to look up some lists of verbs for writers. That way, the words are in my head while I’m working.
3. Target the Key Words
Okay, now that you have a scene to work with, we’re going to strengthen each verb, one at a time. Grab a highlighter, a pencil, or your preferred writing tool of choice.
First, highlight or circle every place with a “being” verb and a verb ending in -ing. That means:
- Was standing
- Is running
- Were sitting
- Had been flying
- … and anything else of that nature.
These spots are tricky, because sometimes, in certain contexts, they can be necessary. For example, when a character is entering a flashback scene…
“She remembered the accident like it was yesterday. Her mom was out jogging. No cell phone, no way to call for help when she got hit by that pickup truck.”
If we were to replace “her mom was out jogging” with “her mom jogged,” it doesn’t fit the flow of the scene. However, consider this example:
“Martha was dying of thirst. The heat was killing her.”
This could, and probably should, be rewritten.
Cut out as many “was -ings” as you possibly can, and your story will sound brighter and more alive.
All the Adverbs!
Next, highlight all the verbs with adverbs that end in -ly. This would include combos like “smiled happily,” “ran quickly,” and dialogue tags like “sighed heavily.”
Most of the time, an adverb that ends in -ly, such as sadly or angrily, is a cover-up for a weak verb. That means that when you get an -ly adverb paired with a verb, you should take a second look at it.
Here’s the golden rule of thumb I learned from an English teacher I had in high school– if the adverb changes the meaning of the verb, keep it. If the adverb does nothing, take it out or pick a new verb.
So for example, the sentence “she laughed happily” is redundant. We can guess she’s in a good mood, since she’s laughing. We could take out “happily,” or we could change the verb and try something like “she giggled” or “she bent over laughing.”
However, the sentence “she laughed sadly” is great just how it is.
Comb through your -ly adverbs and make sure that they all serve a purpose.
Also watch out for the verbs that end in -ing. A handful of these are great, but don’t use them too often. When you can, edit your sentences so you can take out those extra -ing’s.
Boost Every Verb
The best verb isn’t the one with the most syllables, it’s the one that says what you mean.
You’re character’s running along an alleyway. If your character is in a big hurry, he might be dashing, sprinting, or bolting. If your character’s on their daily jog, they could be trotting, and if they’re trying to get away from something, try words like scuttling, darting, or scrambling.
This is where a good thesaurus will be your friend. Play around with some different options, until you get the feel you’re looking for.
Coming up with perfect verbs is a technique that takes practice, just like every other element of writing. However, by starting with these 3 steps, I hope you can bypass the trial-and-error stage and start scoring big with your writing.
If you found this post helpful, or if I missed anything, drop a note in the comments. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Now go forth and stun them with your verb usage.