Posted on Dec 03, 2018
265+ Forceful Verbs to Turn You Into a Literary Tyrannosaurus
Writing is a storytelling medium. Every sentence is an opportunity to tell a part of that story, elaborating on the plot, characters, atmosphere — whatever. This also means that every time the author writes a sentence like, “Harry opened the door,” they are missing out on a key opportunity to tell us more. What if Harry “jimmied the door,” or “threw the door open”? By using forceful verbs, we get a better sense of what’s happening without many extra words.
Why should you use forceful verbs?
A lot of the time, it simply comes down to using evocative verbs: doing words that not only tell us what is happening but how it is being done as well. But wait! you say, isn’t that what adverbs are for?
Adverbs: who needs them?
Adverbs, by definition, are modifiers that writers can use to describe an action:
- He walked slowly
- She ate voraciously
- They sleep lightly
The thing is, more often than not, you can pick a forceful verb that makes the adverb redundant:
- He sauntered
- She gobbled
- They dozed
Apart from simply being economical with words and avoiding purple prose, however, there are plenty of sound reasons to choose stronger verbs.
Show, Don’t Tell
The granddaddy of writing aphorisms: show, don’t tell. The principle behind this is that it’s far more satisfying for readers to infer what’s happening than for every piece of information to be spoon-fed to them. But perhaps more importantly, “showing” keeps a reader under the spell of the story, while “telling” reminds them that there’s a narrator at work, spinning a tale.
By choosing a solid, evocative verb, you deliver so much more information to the reader while remaining under the radar.
Show, Don't Tell
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Maintain immediacy and build pace
Another reason for maintaining an arsenal of forceful verbs is to preserve and build momentum. By economizing on words and packing each action with more meaning, you can up the pace of a passage. Strip out ALL the adverbs and adjectives and deploy some well-chosen verbs, and watch how your writing hums along like a cigarette boat off the coast of Miami.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But by browsing through these hand-picked verbs, you should start to get an idea of how many words are already in your vocabulary — and how you can employ them in your writing.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
How can a phrase with so many letters of the alphabet also be so dull? It’s a surprise that the fox didn’t fall asleep half-way through that sentence and come crashing down on the lethargic mongrel. Instead of rolling out boring words like ‘walk’ and ‘run,’ give your characters an early birthday present and spice up their motions with these verbs.
Don’t have your protagonist ‘hold’ something or ‘put’ it down — that tells us nothing about the character, object, or the action. Here are some sweet alternate verbs that will pull readers into your scene about a guy with a thing in his hand:
Buckle up: you’re about to get some advice that sounds contradictory, but really isn’t. The widely held rule about writing dialogue is that you shouldn’t use dialogue tags more exotic than “he said,” and “she said.” And that is true. If you tell your readers that Doctor Watson ejaculated in surprise, you’re more likely to distract your readers than if you wrote: “My word, Holmes. What a shock!” Watson said.
But, while keeping your dialogue tags unobtrusive, you don’t have to describe all acts of speech as “saying.” Here are some strong alternate verbs for characters who are flapping their lips:
However, if you are looking to beef up your arsenal of dialogue tags even more, why not download our free list of 150 other words for ‘said’?
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Verbs maketh the action, and nowhere is this truer than in action scenes. There’s no easier way to ruin a fight than by using the first, boring words that come to mind.
Arnold hit the other robot powerfully, who then used his .44 Magnum to shoot him back.
Boo. Hiss. Snooze. In action scenes, your job as a writer is to excite the reader — and for that, you need to quicken the pace of your writing. No time for adjectives or adverbs that lengthen sentences. Pick verbs that evoke the movements, speed, and emotions that you’re looking for. Start here:
In films, a lot of storytelling is done through the close up: a wide shot of a rotting corpse cutting to a close-up of a grizzled detective squinting his eyes tells us that he’s closely scrutinizing the body and wondering what happened. However, that’s Cinema — and books are not a visual medium. Luckily, a well-deployed verb in context can imply how a character is reacting to something they’re witnessing. So take a peek at these:
Sure, someone might be standing on the street — but what else are they doing? You don’t have to tell us that they’re playing on the phone or thinking about their vacation, but you can give us a better picture of how they’re behaving with one of these actions:
The Duchess of Devonshire doesn’t dine in the same way that a soldier in the trenches scoops from his mess tin. Pick the right verbs and you'll have your readers (and characters) eating out of your hand.
Describing what humans are doing is a lot easier than trying to communicate something that people have never seen before. How do you paint a word-picture of a cute alien who is transmogrifying into a deadly monster? And how can you explain to people what it’s like being on the deck of an aircraft carrier, with its various moving parts? If you’re not already shouting, “Verbs! Verbs!” then you haven’t been paying attention.
“Show, don’t tell” was made for writing about emotion. If ever you feel the urge to write, “He was very sad,” then please power down your computer and take a nap. Nobody needs to read that. Instead of telling us how a character feels, show them doing something that reveals this emotion. Why not start by checking out these evocative verbs:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” Chekhov once wrote. “Show me the glint of the light on broken glass.” As a tip of the great Russian dramatist and short story maestro, we’ll finish up with some more alternatives for shining.
Well-chosen, powerful verbs are the secret weapons in a wordsmith’s holster. Always remember that using a bog-standard, overused verb is a missed opportunity. Make every word count, and give your readers something they can get lost in.
Have we missed out on your favorite forceful verb? Let us know in the comments below!
Camilla Rose says:
19/09/2019 – 00:54
I think you should add like "Looking verbs" so to speak. Like watched, stared, glanced, etc.
↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:
07/10/2019 – 15:53
Oh, great suggestion! We'll do just that with next update :)