We’ve all been taught to “show not tell” when describing something—appeal to the senses, describe every aspect of it, make the reader really see and feel the scene. Does it look beautiful, like the evening sun? Does it smell nostalgic, like your grandmother’s spices? Does it feel soft and smooth, like wind and silk?
But there is far more to description than comparison and adjectives. Have you ever felt your writing is flat, despite how many beautiful words you use? Do you feel that you’ve described everything to death, and yet the scene doesn’t feel alive?
The trouble is often an overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Luckily, there is an easy fix—use vivid verbs instead.
The 2-Step Process to Bring Your Scenes to Life With Vivid Verbs
Verbs as descriptions? you might ask. How do I do that?
Step 1: Decide on your message
The fact is, verbs have a lot to tell. Just like how action speaks volumes in life, verbs speak volumes in a story. But you must first decide on what it is you want to say to your readers. Take the following:
The flower was a beautiful shade of red, its petals full of dewdrops, reflecting the light of the sun.
There is nothing wrong with this sentence—the flower is red, and it is beautiful. But what are you trying to say to your readers? There is nothing beyond the simple appearance of the flower.
Do you want your readers to openly admire the flower itself? Or look at it as something more, like a symbol of love or hope? Does it represent honest beauty or vanity? What purpose does this flower serve for your story?
Decide on the message you want to convey first and foremost.
Step 2: Choose the right verbs
People perform their actions with intention. In literature, objects and plants do as well. Once you’ve decided on your message and how you want your object to contribute to the scene, you have to choose the correct “actions” for it to take.
Consider a scene where your character stumbles onto an abandoned lot in an apocalyptic wasteland and is surprised to find living plants growing in it, among which is a shockingly beautiful flower:
The flower brandished its bold red petals, adorned with sun-kissed dew drops.
Suddenly, the flower seems alive. It is still red, and full of dew, but now it’s also prideful, boasting its beauty to the viewer, setting itself apart from the desolation around it. The dew drops were no longer just water, but “adorned” like jewels, as if the flower actively chose to dress up and put itself on display. Even the sun feels more alive with the use of the word “kissed.”
Your character is drawn to this surprising object out of its normal environment, full of life and energy.
Now consider that your characters, a young couple in love, are sitting in a field struggling to confess their feelings. One of them spots a flower that might make a nice spontaneous gift for the other:
The flower blushed under the sun, rouge-red petals hidden under a layer of dew.
Now the flower seems shy, demure and gentle, like a lady consciously concealing her face. The point is further driven home by using the word “rouge,” which invokes the image of makeup. Your characters are in love, and the flower is now a timid third participant, offering itself as a symbol of their affection.
The Magic of Vivid Verbs
The same object described using different vivid verbs invokes vastly different impressions. Not only that, they can contribute to the atmosphere of a story much more strongly than adjectives. Using description this way can also increase the strength of your story within its particular genre.
A hero heading into battle in an epic fantasy novel might cross a mountain path with trees “bending to acknowledge his might” and a breeze “parting grass and leaves before him to make way.”
In contrast, and old man mourning his lost youth on a morning walk might see trees “bent and tired under the weight of their leaves, strangled by ivy,” and hear the wind “sighing its exhaustion, whispering secrets of days past.”
A good way to get a grasp on the concept of describing with verbs is to think of everything in a scene as a contributing character—objects included. Decide on their purpose and pick the appropriate action, and you have a living, breathing scene.
Do you use vivid verbs to enhance description? Let us know in the comments.
To practice describing with verbs, pick one of the objects below (or come up with your own):
- A car
- A tube of lipstick
- A photo of a loved one
- A bottle of alcohol
- A phone
- A pot of flowers
Write the object of your choice in two clearly opposite ways, using verbs wherever possible. For example:
- Good vs. evil
- Sultry vs. innocent
- Bold vs. timid
- Beautiful vs. ugly
- Youth vs. age