Strong Words Bring Your Story to Life
As novelists, we are storytellers and character creators. Our medium is words. Just as a painter practices brush strokes to refine an image, use strong words to refine your language. When you use specific words, you help your reader envision your story.
When you are in the flow of writing is not the best time to concentrate on your word usage. But when you finish the first draft, you can check your manuscript for word usage.
Words and Phrases to Check
Verbs connotate the most power in your writing. Readers skim over flabby verbs like was or thought. The words feel flat because they are generic and do not elicit an emotional response.
Start your word replacement by searching for verbs that lack power.
1. State Verbs. These verbs express a state of being without pulling in the reader.
You won’t replace all these verbs, but search for them and determine if you can replace them with a more specific verb.
Weak: Lucas was walking down the boardwalk.
Strong: Lucas strode down the boardwalk.
Weak: Lila was a lover of old master paintings.
Strong: Lila treasured old master paintings.
Weak: There are three actions you do that make me feel the way I do…
Strong: Three actions convince me we should separate.
2. Verbs Propped by Adverbs
Strong verbs describe the action. They don’t need adverbs to tell the reader how the action performs. The more specific your verb, the stronger the image.
Weak: George ran quickly over the forest floor.
Strong: George dashed over the forest floor.
Weak: Flo looked menacingly at Liz.
Strong: Flo glared at Liz.
Weak: Jeff secretly listened behind the door.
Strong: Jeff eavesdropped behind the door.
3. Gerunds – verbs with -ing endings
Gerunds soften a verb’s impact. Replace them with an active verb.
Weak: Gerard was walking on the Champs-Élysées.
Strong: Gerard walked (but strolled is better) on the Champs-Élysées.
Stroll is stronger because it conjures an image of Gerard’s gait as he walks.
Weak: The suspects were gathering on the mansion terrace.
Strong: The suspects gathered on the mansion terrace.
Weak: Marcie was loving her track to the villain.
Strong: Marcie loved her track to the villain.
Not all gerunds are bad, but minimize their use. For example, Marcie loved calling out the villain.
Specifics Create An Image
Specific verbs like stroll or lumber or trot increase your reader’s engagement because they help formulate an image. The image brings the reader into the story.
When someone reads walk, they understand your character went on foot from one place to another. A more specific verb tells how the went. Each specific verb—stroll, lumber, trot—creates a vivid image of your character’s action.
Get your Mystery Writer Strong Verb list. Download a free PDF.
Use Specific Nouns
Guide your reader deeper into your story with specific nouns. They help your reader visualize your story, as well.
Nouns can get lost in a sea of adjectives as you try to describe specifics. It’s better to use the best noun.
Beginning writers often try to explain details rather than using specifics to get to the point. Trust your readers.
Speech therapist, David Kinnane illustrates:
He inserted vigorously a strong wooden post with a point at one end into the pale corpse that is supposed to leave its grave at night to drink the blood of the living by biting their necks with long pointed canine teeth.
He stabbed the vampire with a stake.
Use The Power of Specific Words
Just like the vampire stake, specificity grabs your reader’s attention and creates an emotional response. The more specific your words, the stronger your reader’s response.
Weak: Drake headed toward the suspect’s home.
Strong: Drake headed toward the suspect’s lair/hovel/cottage/rancho/apartment house/country residence/suburban townhouse…
Each noun creates a vivid picture for your reader. And the specific tells the reader about the suspect character.
Go For the Power Words
These brief examples here give you an idea of how strong verbs and specific nouns build a vital emotional connection with your reader.
As you look for specific nouns and verbs, be careful. You don’t want to overdo it with elaborate or obscure words often found in a thesaurus. Be specific, but not obtuse.
One useful tool for writers at the word stage of editing is Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, a reference tool for specific words.
Don’t forget your strong verb list to help you brainstorm replacing weak verbs. Download the PDF.
Make word choice a primary editing task. You’ll tell the same story, but better.