Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Poetic Tricks: Infuse Your Fiction with the Right VERBS

By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

Happy Almost Spring! Janice gave me February off, but we’re back to considering poetry as it relates to fiction writing the first Wednesday of each month here. Our ancestors started their calendar years in March, when the season began to shift from dormant to verdant. A great time to consider fresh approaches to writing, too.

Our recent SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle conference in Atlanta, where Janice and I volunteered, offered much goodness for poets and fiction writers this year. Nikki Grimes was our keynote speaker, and she offered a verse novel intensive on Friday.

I’ve heard more than one conference speaker over the years praise the mighty verb. As you are revising a draft, pay close attention to the verbs you’ve chosen – if you choose precise verbs, you will undoubtedly tighten and strengthen your manuscript. (We talked a little bit about verbs in November, and how the right verb can direct the pacing of your story.) Let’s look at examples of how verbs do heavy lifting in a variety of passages. I’ve chosen a few verse novels here, because their authors are skilled poets as well as fiction writers.

From LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech The poem is “June 6,” and Jack is writing a letter to Walter Dean Myers after the poet’s visit to his school:
you had the

best best BEST

laugh I’ve ever heard in my life

like it was coming from way down deep

and bubbling up and

rolling and tumbling

out into the air.

©Sharon Creech
Here we have metaphor as well as great verbs (the laugh is bubbling up and rolling and tumbling…) The rhythm matches the action as well.

From the poem “After Everyone Goes to Sleep” in GIRL COMING IN FOR A LANDING by April Halprin Wayland :

This computer

pulls long lines of letters from me.


Each word

slides out


©April Halprin Wayland
In this example we have a powerful metaphor, strong verbs and some alliteration thrown in with long lines of letters and slides out slowly. Did you notice, as you read this passage silently to yourself or out loud, that it takes time to say these words? These verbs are multi-tasking – conveying action but also creating a thoughtful pace and evoking images in the reader’s mind.

From DARK SONS by Nikki Grimes, the opening lines of “The Game,” written in the voice of Ishmael:

We are both men now,

my father and I,

hunched over a gaming board,

silhouetted by a sunset

deep as pomegranate.

©Nikki Grimes

Can’t you see and sense this image? The word hunched packs a punch, and silhouetted does the work of an entire sentence. We also have another example of alliteration (silhouetted paired with sunset), as well as an effective simile, deep as pomegranate. The rhythm and syntax in these few lines feels sophisticated and formal, contributing to the coming-of-age voice of this character.

Finally, from DIAMOND WILLOW by Helen Frost – this sentence on page 51 is from one of the many shape poems in the book; protagonist Willow is hoping she and others make it through the night after a dog sledding mishap:

…The spruce tree seems like it’s as wide awake as I am, spreading her branches to make this cold, cozy shelter.

©Helen Frost

“Spreading” is an effective verb creating a visual image, and the reader enjoys the personification of the tree and the language play of “cold, cozy” – including the unexpected combination of those two adjectives.

Okay, so I threw in a couple of other things besides verb choice there. To bring us back around to our beloved, well-chosen action words, take a look at a brief but potent post that Janice offered a couple of years ago - She describes how instead of choosing a flat, boring, but totally accurate verb – “saw” – in one of her passages, she stretched herself to find just the right words to convey character and point of view as well as action.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, “All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences….”

Heavy lifting! Make sure your verbs are doing their fair share and then some.

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. I love the poetry snippets you use for illustrations! What do you think of alliteration in prose works, like a fantasy novel?

  2. Love this post!!! And like Rachel6, I love the examples you used. I would love for the verbs I use to be more alive like the ones in the examples.

  3. Thanks for covering this! I've always found authors who combine poetic elements in their prose have such vivid imagery. I love it.

  4. Hi, Rachel6! Thanks so much. I love a little bit of alliteration in prose; I think as long as it serves the sentence, which should be serving the story, it can make for some lovely writing. Probably like adding salt to a favorite recipe, a pinch works just fine.

    LinWash, thank you for your comments! Me, too, re. those effective verbs. I'll revisit these examples as well.

    Hi, Jennifer - I'm also drawn to that kind of writing and love to read passages where poetic elements are seamlessly woven in. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Great post. The poetry really hits the point of the lesson. Thanks!

  6. I am blown away by writers who write poetry so beautifully.

  7. Hi, 2unpublishedgirls - thanks for visiting and for your comment!

    Julie, thanks - these authors are some of the best, for sure.