Nail it with Just the Right Word!

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. And verbs are the heavyweights in your sentences, so pay particular attention to them. Especially avoid the very common but tired, overused verbs like walked, ran, and looked. Instead, find a synonym that shows how that action is taking place.

Say you’ve got a character going from one place to another. How are they moving, exactly, and why? Convey their physical and emotional state at that moment by using a strong, precise, evocative verb. Readers will envision the character and situation much differently, depending on whether you show them strolling or striding or skipping or shuffling or sauntering or slinking or strutting or sashaying or slogging along, just to name a few “s” movement verbs, for example.

For help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print). Use the thesaurus to find a wide range of possibilities, then if you’re not 100% sure of the meaning, check with the dictionary to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.

But avoid choosing words your readers will need to look up in a dictionary.

Just make sure to choose a word that really nails the meaning you’re looking for, not one that will impress your readers with your literary prowess. Choosing obscure words that just draw attention to themselves is a sure way to distract readers from your story and annoy them. So read your story out loud later to make sure the words you’ve chosen sound natural and are words your characters would actually say or think in the given situation. (And remember that narration is really the viewpoint character’s thoughts and observations!)

Example from my editing:  She heard a stridulous sound coming from the basement.

I’ve never heard the word “stridulous” before, so it conjures up no image or meaning whatsoever to me. That’s the danger for a lot of your readers, too – no image, no impact. And a mild irritation at having to look a word up in the dictionary if they want to know what it means.

If you’d like to introduce some interesting words your readers might not know, it’s best to use them in context, so readers can guess at the meaning.

Choose words that enhance the tone, mood, and voice of your scene.

Find vivid verbs

Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene.

Words for “walked”:

I’ve compiled a handy list of synonyms for “walked” to fit various situations and characters:

– Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

– Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

– Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

– Tired: trudged, plodded, slogged, clopped, shuffled, tramped

– Rough terrain, hiking: marched, trooped, tramped, hiked

– Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

– Showing off: strutted, paraded, sashayed

– Other walking situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended, tiptoed

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe.

But don’t grab that synonym too quickly! Watch out for show-offy or silly words.

After you’ve found a list of interesting synonyms, choose carefully which one to use for the situation, as well as the overall tone of your book. For example, for “walk,” don’t go to extremes by choosing little-known, pretentious words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”

And beware of words that just don’t fit that situation.

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had a few author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted – or half-asleep.

Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about wartime, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers “striding” across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them “strutting.” To me, you wouldn’t say “he strutted” unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It’s definitely not an alternate word for “walked with purpose” as is “he strode.”

Or, disguised from another novel I edited:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

The verb “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office.

For similar lists for the verbs “ran” and “looked,” as well as lots of other tips for writing compelling fiction, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction.Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers

Here are two recent quotes from two different contest judges about Fire up Your Fiction:

“This should be on the booklist for Master’s Programs in Writing for Publication.” ~ Writer’s Digest Judge

“FIRE UP YOUR FICTION is the Strunk and White for writers who want to be not just mere storytellers but master story-compellers.” ~ Judge, IndieReader Discovery Awards

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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45 thoughts on “Nail it with Just the Right Word!

  1. Jodie, how awesome. I do this exact same exercise with my students (and I mean my HS seniors) to show that the way to elevate writing isn’t in the adverbs or adjectives, it’s in the verbs. And I always finish it off with the worst pun. They brainstorm on their own, then fill the white board in my room with better verbs for movement than “walk.”

    And when they’ve done that, I point out that, compared to everything they’ve come up with, ‘walk’ just seems….pedestrian…..

    😀

  2. I remember being struck by a scene in a book–a discreet server was wearing slippers on his feet, which “whispered” across the parquet floor. It conveyed just the right sense of sight and sound for that walk-on character.

  3. Funny, I have my own list for “walked”. I am critiquing someone’s work now, and not only does she overuse “she walked” but also “she went” and “There is…” among others. Makes me want to gnash my teeth.

  4. I also have a cheat sheet for colors, because I can’t think beyond the rainbow. Know where to get some good ones? Look in your department store ads for clothing.

  5. Yes, “there is” and “there are” (“there was” and “there were”) are usually unnecessary filler words, Nancy, as are “It is” and “It was.” Just jump right in with whatever it was! LOL

  6. Great post. My first drafts are full of these “mistakes”. Hopefully, I expunge them before they get to the editor.

  7. Although I loathe: grin, guffaw, chortle, and giggle.

    I had somebody go ballistic on me for using “minced.” The character was wearing a tight red dress and stilettos and trying to get across swampy ground. Minced was the right damn word.

    An editor beat out of me: “he looked,” “he felt,” “he tasted,” etc. as passive telling rather than concentrating on the experience.

    In the manuscript, my character is nearly pitched out of the jeep when it hits a pothole. Old days I might have typed, “I felt the ripping pain as my knees peeled away from the hot vinyl” to “The ripping pain as my knees peeled free of the hot vinyl [character experience on consequence of almost flying out of a jeep.]

    Great post. Word choice goes a long way toward setting mood and voice in a book.

    Terri

  8. Very useful post, Jodie. I’m of the mind that nine times out of ten, “walked” and “went” are enough. But that is when you are dealing with a quick and dirty narrative where you just need to move your people through space. But the RIGHT verb and the RIGHT time is great. Too much and it cloys. Too little, it’s flat. You have to not only find the right word but know when to throw it in the mix.

    I’m making stewed chicken right now and I can smell the tarragon I put it in. Some nights, plain chicken will do, but some times, you need a little tarragon.

    • Kris, the problem comes when someone isn’t walking at all but striding or slugging through mud or marching or shuffling along or whatever. Give us the complete picture! If they’re just walking, no problem – use that.

  9. If I can be so bold, your post dovetails well with mine tomorrow. I am writing about consistency of tone and finding the right word is one of the choices we make to enhance tone.

  10. Jodie–
    Everything here is take-it-to-the-bank worthy. I titled a novel “Affinity.” This was accurate in terms of the novel: several sets of very different characters demonstrated affinity for each other. But this didn’t matter, because few potential readers were going to know what the word meant (unfortunately, my agent at the time didn’t pick up on this). To some degree, this instance illustrates a real problem for those who come from a college-teaching background, and then write popular fiction. The term “killing your darlings” applies here, the darlings being words that precisely convey the writer’s meaning, but that will put off many readers.

    • So true, Barry. And don’t think of it as dumbing down your novel, think of it as making it more accessible and enjoyable – and helping it rise up the ranks!

      Check back here in two weeks when my topic is aimed at professionals – Tips for Breaking Those Formal or Verbose Writing Habits. 🙂

    • I will certainly check back, Jodie. Among other tricks is simply reading what readers like, and paying attention to what’s on the page. And noting what isn’t.

  11. Great post Jodie! Apparently I am guilty of using words that get the ‘I had to look it up in the dictionary’ complaint:( I try very hard to find the right words but sometimes have to remind myself not to just go for the cool obscure ones but the ones that have clear meaning for the reader and don’t stop the story!

    • Yes, Clare, the word should give the reader an immediate mental image or evoke an emotional response from them. If it just sits there on the page until they unlock its meaning, it’s not really driving the story forward, and risks being a source of subliminal annoyance or irritation or impatience from the reader, who just wants to get on with the story – especially if it happens frequently!

  12. Your comments about “walked” show there’s more to it than simply moving from one place to another–like the character is standing on a dolly and being schlepped around by crew members.

    When I put my “going back to the city” hat on I become quite conscious of the anticipated behavior of other people from their posture, gait, head position, shoulders, where the eyes are going–and of course, their hands snaking around. You see some dude–or couple of dudes–coming toward you on the street. Within a second or two you easily “make” them. Then you send out a vibe of your own, that says, “don’t —- with me.” And just by the look in their eyes, you know whether they’ve bought it or not.

    All this stuff gets transmitted within a couple of beats, and then it’s gone. I like to work that into my character interactions. Stuff anyone should see coming a mile away. You set up little clues for your reader. Get them thinking about it. Then before the scene closes, you validate the reader’s suspicions (which you planted), and the reader is left feeling all cool and hip–hopefully.

    • Excellent stuff, Jim! Thanks so much for sharing your great technique of observing carefully in real life, than transposing those skills to your fiction! 🙂

      P.S. I wish I could send out that “Don`t mess with me“ vibe, but coming from a 5-foot-four, middle-aged woman, it just wouldn’t have the same effect! LOL

  13. I love posts like this. It’s like meat, a diet of delicious meat, with good fresh veggies for roughage and a tasty glass of slightly sweetened lemon tea to wash it all down…lovely.

  14. As an yet-to-be published author, these are great tips.I am sure I will be quite a challenge for my editor on my first attempt! I will do my best not to embarrass myself too much, and cause unnecessary gnashing of teeth.. 🙂

    • Keep at it, Rebecca. Writing fiction that engages the readers and keeps them eagerly turning the pages takes work and practice and revising and rewriting and polishing! But you’ve got the right attitude, so I know you can do it!

  15. I love words, so this post was a real treat!

    I suspect we’ve all come across writing that falls on either end of the Three Bears spectrum — too minimalist to properly convey the story or so heavily loaded with “big” words that readers trip over them trying to get to the story.

    We’re all searching for the Goldilocks formula in our writing, aren’t we?

    I enjoyed the examples you included in your post. As you illustrated, a certain word may sound good in a sentence but clearly be the wrong choice. My guess is that soldiers and officers “strutting” across the battlefield will be the first ones to be picked off. 🙂

    Thanks for the great tips, Jodie.

    • Thanks, AD. I think where the thesaurus can be a problem is when writers start choosing obtuse words that readers won’t understand – kind of defeats the purpose!

    • I’m sure it would, Eric! Also for learning to write tighter and take out all superfluous words that are just cluttering up the sentences.

  16. This is just wonderful, Jodie. As one of your authors, I can attest that you have almost exorcised walked and looked out of me. And the small demons that remain, well that’s why I have a great editor like you who is ordained to purify a manuscript clean.

    Thanks again for sharing, and reminding me of the the power of verbs.

    What a stridulous post! 🙂

    • Thanks, A.M.! I loved working with you on your thriller, Terminal Rage, and I’m “thrilled” to see it’s doing so well and getting the attention it deserves!

  17. Jeesh. Last time it was the gerunds. I checked my WIP and found over 4,700 of ’em. Gadzooks. I’ve gone in there with a hatchet and things look like a massacre. Next time I won’t put ’em in there in the first place. No more gerunds! No more semicolons! Occasionally, a colon, maybe.

  18. Jim, go ahead and leave a few gerunds here and there. Just don’t start sentence after sentence with them, and make sure the rest of the sentence makes sense grammatically. All these suggestions are just guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules! 🙂

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