Action verbs for creative writing
These creative writing tips show how to harness the tremendous power in action verbs:
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #1: Vivid Verbs Are Powerful Verbs
Verbs energize. An action verb generates more drama and emotion than a noun, adjective or adverb of similar meaning. Compare:
The children wept when their dog died. (Strong verbs: wept, died)
The children shed tears over the death of their dog. (Nouns: tears, death)
The children were sad when their dog was dead. (Weak verb to be + adjectives: sad, dead)
Use vivid verbs, powerful verbs, to fizz up the action, paint word-pictures, and evoke feelings in your readers.
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #2: Active Verbs Grab Attention
Use active verbs rather than passive. Active verbs rivet readers’ attention; passive verbs weaken your writing. Compare:
Kim broke the jar. (Active verb)
The jar was broken by Kim. (Passive verb)
The first example is strong, precise and concise; the second sounds insipid.
The active verb in the first example charges the sentence with a vitality and directness that compels attention. In the second example, however, the passive verb has slowed down the action and made the sentence unnecessarily wordy.
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #3: Active Verbs Add Vim and Vitality
Active verbs get things done fast; passive verbs impede action. Compare:
Jack fired the rocket. (Active verb)
The rocket was fired by Jack (Passive verb)
Use active verbs to quicken the pace. Like this:
. the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.
(From A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens)
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #4: Concise Verbs Are Strong Verbs
Some forms of verbs are more concise, direct and dramatic than others. Compare:
The clock is striking twelve.
The clock strikes twelve.
Verbs ending in -ing (for example, striking, prowling, shouting) are weaker than their shorter forms (strike, prowl, shout).
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #5: Powerful Verbs Are Concise and Precise
Be as concise as possible; prefer the single verb to the roundabout phrase.
Do not say:
He did not remember to feed the dog.
She did not pass the music exam.
He forgot to feed the dog.
She failed the music exam.
Creative Writing Tips on Strong Verbs #6: Examples of Action Verbs
A strong verb creates a mood or an image simply by its sound or connotations: for example, instead of the word walk, use more evocative words like saunter, stride, strut or swagger. Water can gush, gurgle, spurt or squirt out; villains may scoff, sneer, jeer or taunt; and as for the loot, let it gleam, glitter, sparkle or dazzle.
Vivid verbs appeal to the reader’s senses of sight, sound, touch or smell. Like these:
Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along.
(From Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare)
Tonight the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day:
The last red leaf is whirl’d away,
The rooks are blown about the skies;
The forest crack’d, the waters curl’d,
The cattle huddled on the lea;
And wildly dash’d on tower and tree
The sunbeam strikes along the world.
(From In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson)
Creative Writing Tips on Action Verbs #7: Strong Verbs & Verb Music
Strong verbs also evoke the music of words. When choosing verbs, discern with your inner ear: do the sounds of the words carry the meaning and mood you want to convey? Is it melody or discord that you hear? Do the verbs stimulate this word music for readers?
Look again at the description of the brewing storm in the previous section (Creative Writing Tips #6: excerpt from In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson). Feel the intense vigor of the verbs, hear the roar of the music. Compare it to the following example, where the verbs march to a different beat, a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of exuberant activity:
But as soon as the Mariner, who was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, found himself truly inside the Whale’s warm, dark, inside cupboards, he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he banged and he clanged, and he hit and he bit, and he leaped and he creeped, and he prowled and he howled, and he hopped and he dropped, and he cried and he sighed, and he crawled and he bawled, and he stepped and he lepped, and he danced hornpipes where he shouldn’t, and the Whale felt most unhappy indeed.
(From Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling)
Want to learn more about the music of words? Go to Word Music.
Creative Writing Tips on Active & Passive Verbs: When to Use Passive Verbs
When is it better to use passive verbs? When the story calls for a change of pace: for example, to slow down the action, reduce tension, or stretch the narrative.
Choose passive verbs also when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action; like this:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment for our peace fell upon him,
and by his stripes we are healed.
(From The Bible, Isaiah 53: 3a, 5)
For more Creative Writing Tips, go to:
More Creative Writing Tips for the fiction writer:
Didn’t find what you were looking for? Use this search box to find it:
Powerful Verbs for Your Writing
Grace Fleming, M.Ed., is a senior academic advisor at Georgia Southern University, where she helps students improve their academic performance and develop good study skills.
Verbs are action words, right? We all remember that from elementary school. Verbs describe the action that is taking place.
But verbs don’t have to surrender all the fun and emotional power to adjectives—the words that traditionally paint the pictures in our heads. As a matter of fact, the most powerful writers use verbs quite effectively to illustrate their writing.
Review Your Verbs
After you complete a draft of your paper, it might be a good idea to conduct a verb inventory. Just read over your draft and underline all your verbs. Do you see repetition? Are you bored?
Verbs like said, walked, looked, and thought can be replaced with more descriptive words like mumbled, sauntered, eyeballed, and pondered. Here are a few more suggestions: