On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Verbs—Choose Wisely

Sample paragraph: I saw Hal coming toward me across the office commons, waving. “What did the boss say?” he screeched.

I shook my head and waved him away. “I don’t want to talk about it, Hal.”

“Oh, Ron,” he squealed. “Please tell me he didn’t fire you!”


Do the verbs screeched and squealed help build up the atmosphere of this scene or disrupt it?

What if I tell you the screecher is forty-something, college-educated and in upper management and that his normal speaking voice is a rich baritone?

I don’t know about you, but I see an owl in a three piece suit.

Words that work against characterization disrupt the reader’s sense of the story. If your beautiful princess screeches her dialogue and cackles when she laughs, you inadvertently paint a picture of her that you may not intend to. If you want her to seem a bit whacky or have her provide comic relief, then by all means have her screech and cackle away. But make sure her actions enhance rather than contradict her character.

The important thing is to remember that strong verbs are your best tool for communicating about your characters and about the atmosphere of a given scene. You can use the most luscious adjectives in the thesaurus, but if you have your ethereal, angelic, silver-eyed princess respond to the hero’s’ attempt at humor by cackling, the reader will wonder why you didn’t follow up by having him gape in disappointment and disbelief or involuntarily imagine her laying an egg.

Exercise: Rewrite the short scene above so that Hal’s excitement or trepidation is clear and present, without him screeching and squealing it.


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