Stronger verbs. Do they really matter? I’ll take a commonly used one, LOOK, and provide some examples of how a strong verb lifts up the story, while weak verbs add nothing—holding down a potentially great scene.
So, what’s the big deal with look? I mean, we all look at stuff. We look down. We look up. We look over our shoulder. We look at people. We look at everything. That’s how we take in a good portion of information to our brain—through looking. So why should we use other words to fluff up something that’s so common? Because how we look at something and why we look at something helps paint a picture, therefore creating conflict and mood for an unforgettable scene. But this can’t be accomplished with the word “looked.”
Let’s start with how we look at something.
“She looked through the crack in the door” provides nothing to the scene and doesn’t create a clear picture. But replace “looked” with a stronger verb, and the sentence comes alive. “She peered through the crack in the door.” The latter gives a clearer picture of the character leaning in, her eye close to the crack, and creates tension. What’s outside the door? What’s going on that has her too scared to just poke out her head? Peered is much stronger, and shows how she looked through the crack in the door instead of just telling the reader she looked through the crack in the door.
“June looked at her mother.” This sentence tells us nothing about the scene, nothing about June’s mood or the relationship between June and her mom. But if I replace “looked” with a stronger verb, the scene comes alive. “June glared at her mother.” The reader can automatically assume June is upset with her mom, something we couldn’t have determined from the weaker verb of “looked.”
“Nicky looked through the curtains.” Again, a plain scene with nothing to hint at what’s going on. “Nicky peeked through the curtains.” This gives a clear picture of the character standing close to the curtains, but not wanting to be seen, she remains hidden behind the curtains.
The next step is to determine why we look at something. This one provides a reason to “look.”
“Footfalls pounded from behind. Mike looked over his shoulder and ran.” While the footsteps set up the scene for something sinister, the word “looked” adds nothing to the tension. “Footfalls pounded from behind. Mike glanced over his shoulder and ran.” To glance at something means to make sudden, quick movements. From the definition we can conclude that whatever is behind Mike is horrible enough to make him run with only a quick sighting.
“Blood gushed from Coltin’s hand. The doctor looked at the wound and determined he needed surgery.” Again, we have a nice setup, but fall short of a vivid scene. “Blood gushed from Coltin’s hand. The doctor examined the wound and determined he needed surgery.” “Examined” offers a clearer picture of how in depth the doctor went to make the determination.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly fine to use “looked” on occasion, but when a stronger verb can show instead of tell, that’s when I recommend changing it out.
But how do we know which words to use? To help you with this, I compiled a list of synonyms to use instead of “looked.” I also included synonyms for “looks like” and “walked” which are also commonly overused in manuscripts.
So search through those manuscripts and switch out those generic verbs that don’t add to the story. Words matter. Make each one count.
Rebecca Carpenter is a copy editor for Kate Foster Professional Editing and for Lakewater Press. Her first novel, Butterfly Bones, a young adult contemporary science fiction, came out in Nov. of 2016. The sequel, Butterfly Blood, is scheduled to be released in 2018.
Synonyms for Looked
Synonyms for Looked Like
Synonyms for Walked
Foot it Scurries
Hoofs it Lumbers
Leg it Parade
Power Walk Gimps
One thought on “Utilizing Stronger Verbs (aka: Show Don’t Tell)”
Very useful – I know I’m sometimes guilty of over-using words like ‘look’.