In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.
When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.
Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’. Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.
But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.
Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.
Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.
Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:
Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.
After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.
Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.
Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)
Other various examples of verbs done well:
Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.
‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.
Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.
FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS
Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.
Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.
Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)
ONE LOOK DICTIONARY
To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free) OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.
The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.
I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:
When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:
As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.
Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:
(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)
For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:
And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:
OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).
Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.
There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.