I had one of those ah-ha!, slap-your-head-with-the-palm-of-your-hand-*duh* moments recently.
This time, that moment was about writing.
An article I read discussed ways to improve your writing. In your first draft, the most important thing is to get the words down in whatever perfect or jumbled form you can. The revision stage is where you get creative from those bare bones you have constructed. What is the one element that will instantly make your writing more compelling, creative, and interesting? That’s right: verbs.
Verbs allow us to hear and see. They are our senses. Verbs are integral to any writing, and using them is as simple as Schoolhouse Rock professes. They are action, or lack thereof, and how we manipulate them is important. One word can change the whole outlook and approach to a story. Verbs tell the story. In retrospect, it is an obvious solution, but I didn’t believe it could be that easy until I played around with verbs…and ah-ha!
Consider the sentence: He took the box to the car. The sentence gets you there but not in style.
The verb, the action, in this sentence is “took,” which is the past tense of the word “take.” Often action is seen as immediate, but the past tense is the most common tense used in writing whether that is a novel, magazine, or a news story. Past tense does not negate a reader’s experience in the present. Now change one word: the verb. This is what you get:
He dragged the box to the car.
He pushed the box to the car.
He rolled the box to the car.
He pulled the box
He hefted the box
He carried the box
He lugged the box
Each verb changes the meaning of the sentence and enhances the story. “Drag” and “push” suggests that the box is heavy (is there a dead body in it?) or that the character is weak (is he sick or injured?). Suddenly, the reader has the potential to know more about the story and situation. “Hoist” and “heft” imply circumstances more than “carry” does, but each of those words suggests that the box size is important (is the box lifted by hands or a crane?) or that the character’s physical strength (is he struggling or showing off his muscles?) is integral to the story. The reader becomes more intrigued about the contents of the box and the overall situation. “Move” suggests that the box was in one location (is it hidden in a bedroom?) and has to be in a new place (why and to where?). Now the reader is enticed into the plot and the character’s circumstances.
Now the writer has the opportunity to delve deeper into the overall experience to entertain readers. Consider the sentences above that evolved from changing the word “took” to a more specific and situational verb:
He dragged the box across the gravel towards the station wagon, but it was a long driveway.
He carried the blue box in his suit pocket because it had to be a surprise, and she was already waiting in the car.
He swayed and stumbled with the box on his shoulders, hoping it would fit in the trunk of his beat-up Ford Mustang.
The box had to be moved–now!–so he whipped it up in his arms and dashed outside to the only place he could think of: Jesse’s car.
He placed the brown moving box lightly on the dolly, but he did not see the Fragile This Side Up sticker until he rolled the dolly to the car.
Flip, flop, end over end, Smithy spent ten minutes pushing the empty refrigerator box to the far end of the dump where the rusty motorcycle and broken dresser were already stacked.
All that magic occurred from one changed word. What magic can you create? Ah-ha!