by Jodie Renner, editor & author
(Excerpted from Fire up Your Fiction - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Stories, by Jodie Renner)
Want to write a bestselling novel? To bring your characters and scenes to life in a way that readers can relate to, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action and situation. Say you’ve got a character walking. How are they moving? There’s a huge difference between strolling and striding and shuffling and sauntering and slinking and strutting and sashaying and slogging, for example.
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 enhance the mood and strengthen a scene, resulting in greater reader involvement and enjoyment.
For example, check out how many ways you can say “walked” or “moved.” (Hint – look up the present tense – “walk” or “move.”) You can use the handy thesaurus in Word (under the Review tab) or another online thesaurus, or go all out and buy the best print one out there – the huge J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder.
For the verb “walked” for example, Rodale gives us a long list of great synonyms to help us capture just the right situation and tone. He just lists them, but here I’ve roughly categorized some of them to suit various situations, and changed them to past tense, to suit most novels and short stories.
Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled
Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, 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, traversed
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” or “perambulate” or “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” or “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 two 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.”
Also, be careful of having someone “march” into a room, unless they’re in the military or really fuming or determined. “Strode” captures that idea of a purposeful or determined walk better.
Here’s another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:
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.
“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 “stumbled” back to his office.
So after you’ve found a few possible words in the thesaurus, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the exact meaning in your dictionary. For that, I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I use Merriam-Webster online for quick reference.
I found a list of synonyms for run, just listed in alphabetical order, then reordered them here to fit specific circumstances:
Fun, play: amble, skip, scamper, scoot
Start off running: take off, bolt, make a break, light out, make off, dash, tear out, make tracks, split
Tense, frightened, being chased: barrel, dart, escape, flee, dash, hurry, race, rush, hasten, hustle, speed, sprint, scramble, scurry, tearAthletic training, exercise: jog, pace, race, dash, sprint, travel
In a hurry: hasten, bustle, hurry, hustle, rush, dash, hasten, scurry
Animals: scamper, trot, scurry, take flight, travel
Colloquial, humorous: hotfoot it, skedaddle, make tracks, scoot, take off, tear out
And serendipitously, I was just reading Robert Crais’s thriller, The Last Detective, and discovered another great list of synonyms for “run.” The anonymous narrator is describing a recurring dream:
“I am desperate to escape this place. I want to beat feet, boogie, truck, book, haul ass, motor, shred, jet, jam, split, cut out, blow, roll, abandon, get away, get gone, scram, RUN…”
But proceed with caution. Again, once you have the list, choose your word carefully. Obviously, if you’ve got someone running for their life, you wouldn’t use such light-hearted synonyms as “scamper” or “scoot” or “skip” or “trot” or “amble.”
And it’s also important to consider the overall voice of the scene and the inner thoughts of the viewpoint character. Are they the kind of person who would use “skedaddle” or “hotfoot it” in their personal vocabulary?
Try looking up the verb “look” in a good thesaurus. Here are some of the synonyms J.I. Rodale lists:
see, visualize, behold, notice, take in, regard, observe, study, inspect, examine, contemplate, eye, check out, scrutinize, review, monitor, scan, view, survey, scout, sweep, watch, observe, witness, gaze, peer, glance, glimpse, ogle, leer, stare, goggle, gape, gawk, squint, take a gander, spy, peek, peep, steal a glance at, glare, glower, look down at, look daggers… (and the list goes on).
Again, choose carefully.
Some of these, and others he lists, are just too specific or archaic for general use in fiction, so proceed with caution. For example, don’t use “behold” for “look” in your present-day thriller or mystery! And “reconnoiter” works for military situations, but not for everyday use. Also, watch for eyes doing weird physical things, like “his eyes bounced around the room.”
Also, 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.
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.”
At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.
“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”
For more, check out my posts "A Single Word Can Change the Tone" and "It's All in the Verbs" on the Kill Zone Blog.
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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: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICKCLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook.
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