It’s All in the Verbs

Jodie Renner, editor & author  image

Okay, maybe not ALL, but your choice of verbs can make or break a scene. Have a look at a recent chapter or short story you’ve written. Check the verbs in particular. Maybe even highlight them. Are some or a lot of them bland, vanilla verbs like came, went, arrived, approached, walked, ran, or looked?

Do you have a heavy, tired, or angry character simply walking when he could be trudging or clomping or stomping or plodding? Or an old or ill or exhausted character walking who should be limping or shuffling along? Make the conceited or over-confident guy swagger or strut and the lawyer stride into the courtroom. And be sure your drunk, stoned, or injured suspect is staggering, lurching, wobbling, meandering, or shambling, not just walking. Or perhaps someone is running when sprinting or racing or darting or dashing or fleeing would better capture the situation and her mood.

Of course, sometimes an ordinary character on a regular day is just walking or jogging. But when you need to bring the character and scene to life and add tension (which is most of the time), use all the tools in your toolbox to create sensory impressions for the readers and engage their emotions — make them worry.

If you’ve got a character looking at something or someone, consider whether they really are just looking. Or are they actually peering at something? Or observing or studying or examining or inspecting or scrutinizing it? Or perhaps they’re covertly spying at a group around a campfire. Or maybe they’re glancing around them or catching a glimpse of someone. Or glaring at another person in anger. Or squinting into the distance under the glaring sun.

Be sure your words, especially the verbs, capture the mood you’re after.

And don’t prop up a weak, overused verb with an adverb. Instead of “She walked quietly,” say she crept or she tiptoed or she sneaked or she slinked along the wall.

Fire up Your FictionFor a whole chapter on finding just the right verb for every scenario, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction, chapter 21, “Choose Words That Nail It.” Subtopics include People in Motion, Words for “Walked,” Replacements for “Run,” and Different Ways of Looking. (Lots of other great stuff for writers in there, too!)

Let’s add a bit of urgency to the sentence below by changing up the verbs:

The NCIS agents drove to the scene, then went to the back of the vehicle and pulled out their equipment.

Here’s one possibility:

The NCIS agents raced to the scene, then hurried to the back of the vehicle and grabbed their equipment.

Note how changing just three verbs can amp up the scene. You could probably charge it up even more.

Are you accidentally sabotaging your scene by choosing a verb that gives entirely the wrong impression?

Make sure none of your verbs are actually working against the scene, undermining the effect you’re after. Do you inadvertently have characters strolling or ambling or slouching at tense times? Or leaning back during an argument? Be sure not to use shuffling for the walking of someone who isn’t old, sick, weak, or very tired.

Remember that tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward, so unless you’ve got two lovers taking a romantic walk, don’t have your characters strolling along when they should be hurrying or hustling or darting in and out, glancing around and behind them. Relaxed, easygoing verbs aren’t going to get your reader’s pulse quickening and make her want to turn the page to read more.

Also, think about the difference between a smile and a smirk and a sneer. Don’t have a character sneering when they’re just smirking. Sneer means “to smile or laugh with facial contortions that express scorn or contempt.” So if you have buddies disagreeing or teasing each other, you might use smirked, but don’t use sneered. Save that for someone nasty.

There are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs glare, glance, scan, peer, study, and gaze have quite different meanings, for example.

Do you have characters glaring when you mean gazing or staring or studying or scrutinizing? For example,

Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”

“Glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe:

Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”

How about eyes squinting when there’s no bright light?

At the funeral, the widow caught Adam’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

Watch for “happy” verbs that have sneaked into your story at tense times.

Have any happy, carefree words or dreamy imagery somehow slipped into any of your scenes at tense moments? If your two young protagonists are running for their lives in the woods, don’t mention the birds chirping or the brook babbling or the leaves dancing in the breeze. Keep all your imagery scary and ominous – darkness, nasty weather, treacherous terrain, a howling wolf, or whatever.

Find the “happy” or “comfy” verbs that are subtly dissipating the tension in the scene below in a crime novel:

They pursued the getaway car on a dark, lonely country road. Lights from farmhouses twinkled in the distance. Up ahead, they saw the car spin out and crash into a tree. They pulled up behind it and got out. Tony shone his flashlight into the car. The windshield was fractured. Bits of glass sparkled throughout the inside, and steam rose from the damaged engine.

Yes, “twinkled” and “sparkled” normally have positive connotations, so they counteract the tension you’re trying to build in a scene like this.

Similarly, don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation:

Johnson and Fernandez parked their cruiser at a distance, then jogged at a comfortable pace to the scene of the crime.

Best to not use words like “comfortable” or even “jogging” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the anxious mood and tone of the moment better.

Or if someone is about to face a harsh boss, be reamed out about his behavior, and likely fired, avoid detracting from the tension like this:

“You can go in now,” the secretary said, holding the door open for him. He found himself in a comfortable outer room with a stunning view, several armchairs, a bookcase, and a sofa against a wall. A large oak door stood closed on the far wall.

At such a tense time, it’s best not to add anything comfortable or any obviously positive words like “stunning.” That dissipates the tension at a time when you need to keep building it. Besides, the guy isn’t thinking about the view or the comfy furniture at this moment!

Here’s an example from a different book, describing the actions of a nasty villain about to shoot someone:

Before: He smiled. (doesn’t sound very nasty)

After, revised by the author: His mouth was twisted in a cruel smile.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Don’t overdo the bland, boring verbs, or your scenes will be bland and boring. But if you’re looking for a unique synonym and you’re not 100% sure of the nuances, look each one up in the dictionary so you don’t have your character sneering when you mean smirking, or squinting when you mean peering or glaring.

Your turn. Share some possibilities in the comments below if you feel like playing.

How would a bunch of SWAT team members move after a few miles when training on rough terrain in bad weather?

How would two carefree little girls move around the playground?

How about two top contestants on Dancing with the Stars? How are they moving across the ballroom floor?

How about a more vivid way to say “took” or “carried” something?

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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, as well as twoCaptivate w Silver decal2 clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, including a middle school edition. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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A Fond Farewell from Jodie Renner – and links to Jodie’s Top TKZ Posts

Jodie Renner, editor & authorJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

It’s with mixed feelings that I bid a fond farewell to The Kill Zone. I started guest blogging here in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. It’s been a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of this talented team for the past few years, and I hope I’ve made some meaningful contributions, including setting up the TKZ library. (Click on the TKZ Library link above to check out many TKZ posts, categorized by topic.)

I’m also pleased to have brought in as guest bloggers several friends who are also bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.

Scroll down to see links to my most popular TKZ posts.

I’ll continue to follow this excellent, award-winning blog, and have been told I’m welcome as a guest blogger any time, so you may see future posts by me here occasionally.

Below you’ll find links to many of my posts from this blog, listed from oldest to most recent. And at the bottom you’ll find links to my books, my websites, and my own little blog, where I will continue to post occasionally.

LINKS TO MANY OF JODIE RENNER’S CRAFT-OF-WRITING POSTS HERE ON TKZ:

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes

When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s. …

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude! …

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction. …

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed. …

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

… In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him. …

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point? …

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story. …

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly. …

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. …

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word

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. …

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents. …

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Captivate Your Readers_med~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.  …

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago. …

~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions

…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions. …

~ Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: …

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

… The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut. …

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. …

Three articles on point of view in fiction, with an emphasis on close third-person viewpoint (deep POV). Includes examples.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of the novel)

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

 ~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

Quick Clicks_Word Usage_Precise Choices~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message

… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book. …

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing.

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic? …

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. …

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. …

I look forward to connecting with you all again here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter — and maybe at some writers’ conferences! Keep on writing!

Jodie Renner, a former English teacher and school librarian with a master’s degree, 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, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook.

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Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

villainJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. Readers need to be constantly worrying about him. Which means his life is in upheaval and he’s struggling, dealing with increasing conflict in the form of serious opposition or threats. One or more forces of opposition should threaten the protagonist or stand in the way of his goals.

Challenges don’t need to be in the form of an actual character. They can be some other kind of opposing force or idea, like a fear, phobia, prejudice, or handicap that is preventing the character from reaching her goals.

The main threat in fiction usually comes in the form of an antagonistic character, who isn’t necessarily a murderous villain. Other determined opponents include romantic rivals, “mean girls,” schoolyard bullies, competing colleagues, or sports rivals.

Antagonists can also fall into a gray zone of opposition characters who aren’t really evil, just at odds with the protagonist we’re rooting for. They can be fascinating too, as we don’t know if they’re going to change sides, so they’re often unpredictable. A few examples include the Tommy Lee Jones character chasing Harrison Ford’s character in the movie The Fugitive and Sheriff Teasle in First Blood, who is after our hero, John Rambo. Or how about Han Solo from Star Wars? Not a villain, but not a good guy, either. He sparks things up though, doesn’t he? We wonder whether these somewhat likeable or understandable bad guys could switch sides at any time.

To pose a credible, significant threat and cause readers to worry, your antagonist should be as clever, powerful, and determined as your protagonist. Challenges and troubles are what make your main character intriguing, compel her to be the best she can be. They force her to draw on resources she never knew she had in order to survive, defeat evil, or attain her goals.

For today’s post, we’ll assume your antagonist is a villain – a mean, even despicable, destructive character we definitely don’t want to root for. He needs to be a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goals or a menace to the hero’s loved ones or other innocents. And thrillers, fantasy, and horror require really frightening, nasty villains.

Most of the bad guys in movies and books want the same thing: power. Or maybe revenge or riches. And they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Or worse, they enjoy causing pain, even torturing their victims.

The antagonist needs to be powerful, a game-changer. As Chuck Wendig says in his excellent blog post 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists,” “The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.”

The protagonist and antagonist have clashing motivations. Their needs, values, and desires are at odds. The antagonist and protagonist could have completely opposite backgrounds and personalities for contrast – or be uncomfortably similar, to show how close the protagonist came or could come to passing over to the dark side.

Most readers are no longer intrigued by “mwoo-ha-ha,” all-evil antagonists, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, be sure your villain isn’t unexplainably horrid, evil for the sake of evil. Today’s sophisticated readers are looking for an antagonist who’s more complex, realistic, and believable.

Chuck Wendig suggests antagonists should be depicted as real people with real problems: “People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.”

For a believable, fascinating antagonist or villain, try to create a unique, memorable bad guy of a type that hasn’t been done to death. Try to give him or her an original background and voice.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right. He justifies his actions somehow, whether it’s revenge, a thirst for power, ridding society of undesirables, or payback. He may even feel he has a noble or just goal, as in the serial killer of prostitutes.

To create a worthy opponent for the protagonist and a realistic, believable, complex antagonist, get into his mind-set. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the antagonist want or need?
  • Why is he determined to go after it?
  • What drives the antagonist? Greed? Revenge? Hatred? Anger? Hurt?
  • What is his biggest motivation? To avenge past wrongs? To gain ultimate power?
  • Who does he want to suffer or lose out? Why?
  • How does he justify his actions? What does he tell himself?

Now create a backstory for your antagonist. Most of it will not show up in your story, but you need to get a handle on what makes him tick to ensure he acts in ways that are in keeping with his background.

Develop his voice. As you do for the protagonist, you can write a free-form rant, where he goes on and on about why he hates someone or something, wants to get revenge, needs to find and kill certain people, and so on.

Show his justification for his goals and actions. Why does he think he’s right and justified in his actions? This will create a more believable, more determined bad guy.

Perhaps identify at some point in your narrative a flashback or allusion to an experience that shows the antagonist as a victim – abused or neglected, treated cruelly by family or others in power. This can create a spark of sympathy while also potentially foreshadowing a particularly nasty incident. (Thanks to thriller author Tom Combs for this suggestion.)

Write some scenes purely from the antagonist’s point of view, away from the protagonist, so readers can find out what makes him tick and how twisted he is. This also creates reader concern for the protagonist, which is always a good thing.

Make him scary, a force to be reckoned with, but not all-powerful, as that’s unrealistic. Give him a few weaknesses, too.

And for added complexity and dimension, take it one step further by showing a human side of the antagonist, something readers can actually relate to, might be afraid they could also fall into. That amps up the tension and reader involvement.

So to create a fascinating, believable antagonist or villain, try to make him or her unique. Delve into their background, find out the goals and motivations that drive them forward. Get into their mind and try to understand them. How do they justify their actions?

Give us a complex villain we love to hate – or a gray antagonist who makes us squirm!

TKZers – Who are some powerful villains who made you shiver in novels or films?

Captivate Your Readers_med– And what about your favorite “gray” antagonists or anti-heroes?

And for a future article, what do you think about all the gray protagonists or anti-heroes cropping up in novels, movies, and TV shows, like Nick in Gone Girl and Walter in Breaking Bad? Do you welcome that trend toward a flawed, unlikeable protagonist? Or do you yearn for more admirable, ethical, heroic heroes to root for?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers.

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