Verbs are action words, strong words that let characters make something happen in a story. But some verbs are stronger than others. Strong verbs don’t need qualifying adverbs to help them out. Strong verbs can stand on their own because they convey a distinctive shade of meaning.
Consider all the verbs that are variants of walk, meaning “go along on foot.” Just a few entries for walk in a thesaurus include: stroll, march, tramp, prance, saunter, race, roam, trek, parade, wander, amble, strut, plod, trudge, shuffle, stalk, pace, plod, sprint, tiptoe. Each one conveys a different kind of gait, for a different kind of character, in a different kind of mood. You could write “Jane walked slowly” or you could write “Jane trudged.” You could write “John walked quickly,” or you could write “John raced.” A little girl showing off her new hair ribbons might prance; an old man worried about falling might shuffle. Someone who is leaving a room angrily stalks away; someone who is walking along dreamily wanders or meanders. With a strong enough verb, the adverb is unnecessary.
In the first chapter of my recent book Simon Ellis: Spelling Bee Champ, a video game character springs over a string of fireballs and then plunges into space; a pet ferret scrambles out the door and scrabbles up someone’s arm. In later chapters, a dog bounces after a kid; the enthusiastic principal pops into the classroom one day and and bounds into it on another; one girl trails after another (showing reluctance to go). All of these are verbs that move a character from one place to another, but they do so in such vividly different ways.
Take my list of motion verbs, above, or a list you’d find for the entry “walk” in any good thesaurus. Invite kids to come to the front of the room to act out each one. Have them strut, march, saunter, amble. Where they don’t know the meaning of the word, you may have to join in the acting yourself, or provide a sentence to give context: “Andy was so proud of his new football jersey that he strutted to the front of the room so that everyone could see,” or “Ellie felt the weight of the world on her shoulders as she plodded to the car.”
Give the students a list of motion verbs qualified with adverbs: walk quickly, walk slowly, walk happily, walk sadly, walk confidently, walk fearfully. Ask the students to find a substitute stronger verb to take the place of each verb + adverb combination.
Finally, invite the students to speculate on why a person might be strutting, marching, sauntering, ambling, pacing, plodding, or sprinting. What just happened before this moment to make him or her walk in this way? Where is he or she trying to go? And why? What is going to happen next? Strong verbs don’t just contribute action to a story. They can be the start of a story, too!
BIO: Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit www.claudiamillsauthor.com.