Action verbs provoke movement in your writing. As the workhorse of the sentence, a simple one- or two-syllable verb can pack a powerful punch. So why waste time hunting for the right adjective?
As a writing teacher, I’ll urge my students (of all ages) to push past ornamental, descriptive language and shoot straight for the action. Why?
Because it takes your readers where you want them to go.
The problem with adjectives is that – in their earnest effort to tantalize – they stop action. Verbs win, hands down.
Let’s say an action verb – we’ll call him Slim – goes toe-to-toe with an adjective. He saunters up to the bar and throws down a challenge. “I’ll match wits with anyone foolish enough to defy me,” he intones. His coat’s a little dusty, and the leather on his gun belt needs some spit and polish, but his straight-shooting words hit their mark and squeeze the air right out of the room.
Meanwhile, across the smoke-filled haze, a pretty, young adjective sees this braggart, hears his outrageous claim, and declares there just isn’t room for the two of them. She rises in all her finery and, with a toss of her elegant curls, raises a tiny, gloved hand in protest.
The unshaven Slim catches her eye in the mirror above the bar, and turns slowly as he reaches for his dictionary. But she’s quicker.
“Contemptible,” the mellifluous voice calls forth.
Slim freezes, and for a split second, nobody moves. Then he arches an eyebrow and mocks her. “Refine me,” he taunts.
Flustered, the enchantress purses rosebud lips. “Double-dealing!” she returns.
“I shoot straight,” says he.
The fine porcelain is beginning to crack. “Feeble, fragile failure!” she cries out, desperate.
Slim’s eyes narrow to slits as he summons the final blow: “Hit the road!” he booms, with such force that she falls back into her chair, arrested.
The problem with adjectives is that in their earnest effort to tantalize, they stop action. Verbs win, hands down. There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed modifier, but keep in mind that action, like a skittish thoroughbred, will always go the distance. Adjectives are only pleasing diversions along the way.
When I was a girl, my father liked to take us to school on Saturdays – to shoot rockets in the faculty parking lot. These Barbie doll-sized missiles hurtled off their launching pads in sometimes awkward arcs, lifted by the whoops and hollers of our little crowd. We reveled in their sheer force and speed, vowing that one day, we would fly.
That’s the image I get when I harness a choice verb. It lifts the reader from the page, suspends him, disembodied, and then hurls him into the wild. Try it yourself, and you’ll never look back.