Post 42

Author: Nola Published: over 4 years ago
Tags: imagery, verbs, emotions, specificity, word pictures Category: Writing tips

Vivid Imagery Part 4: Strong Verbs

In an earlier post, I mentioned that strong verbs could be used instead of unnecessary adverbs (e.g. ‘she whispered’ instead of ‘she talked quietly’). They can also be an effective tool for polishing your prose.


The English language is peppered with verbs that have different nuances of meaning. If there is more than one word for a given action, select the one that best describes what you want to convey. Let’s say that Orlando went to the shop. ‘Went’ is a bland verb that tells us nothing about how Orlando got to the shop. Did he walk, drive, roller skate, fly? Let’s say he walked. We now know his mode of travel, but there are also different types of walking. ‘He strode’ conjures up a much different image than ‘he ambled’. What are you trying to say?

Emotional Impact

Strong verbs can elicit an emotional response from readers by helping them to visualise and experience a scene more fully. I could write that ‘a dozen pigeons are sitting on the cathedral spire and then fly down its length and go out to sea’. That sentence is clear, but it’s also flat and boring. Here’s how Anthony Doerr describes that event in All the Light We Cannot See (p. 11).

‘A dozen pigeons roosting on the cathedral spire cataract down its length and wheel out over the sea.’

Can you see how ‘roosting’, ‘cataract’ and ‘wheel’ help paint the picture for the reader? What emotions do the verbs evoke in the following passages?

‘The milk was fine, it was him that was all curdled.’ (From Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson, p. 18)

‘Regret skewered his heart.’ (From Replicate by Adele Jones, p. 115)

‘She was sucking the truth from my eyes …’ (From The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley)

‘… cocktail sausages impaled on little sticks …’ (From Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith)

‘A part of me remained tethered to that castle.’ (From The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, p. 149)

‘On mornings like this, pinioned between late summer and early fall …’ (From The Hatbox Letters by Beth Powling, p. 10)

‘The more she had access to words, the greater her ability to excavate the world around her, carving out the story of who she was.’ (From The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman, p. 197)

A Word About the Thesaurus

A thesaurus can be a wonderful tool in the quest for a strong verb. However, it shouldn’t be used to find obscure words that will make you look clever while confusing your readers (‘He osculated her’). Also remember that words that are listed as synonyms can have slightly different meanings, so choose the right one (e.g. ‘snog’ and ‘peck’ are both synonyms of ‘kiss’).

Why not look back over one of your manuscripts and see if you can spice it up with the odd ‘pummel’ or ‘stipple’. Your readers will love/adore/treasure you for it.

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