Verbs for Victory


How well chosen action words can energise your writing

In a 1938 letter to his daughter Scottie, who was herself to become a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald advises:

All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.

Fitzgerald practised what he preached. Let’s have a look at some of the verbs he uses in The Great Gatsby. In chapter three Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbour and the narrator of the novel, describes the preparations for one of Gatsby’s famous parties:

At high tide in the afternoon I watched his [Gatsby’s] guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Three verbs in particular stand out: ‘slit,’ ‘scampered’ and ‘toiled’ (all marked in bold). ‘Slit’ is a violent word. We talk about slitting someone’s throat! Perhaps Fitzgerald is alerting us to the menace that lies beneath the apparently innocent frivolity of Gatsby’s entertainment. Yet ‘scampered’ is an eager word, fitting the insect simile of the ‘brisk yellow bug’, establishing how keen Gatsby is to have people transported to his parties. At once a paradox emerges  - an enthusiastic host with a sinister underside. And just from two verbs! ‘Toiled’ is a perfect example of Fitzgerald’s claim that verbs, ‘make sentences move.’ If he had chosen a weaker verb with an adverb – such as ‘worked hard,’ although the meaning would be the same, the sentence would lose its intensity.

So what can we learn from this? That it’s better to use powerful verbs than weaker ones with qualifying adverbs – ‘slit’ rather than ‘made their way through’ and ‘scampered’ rather than ‘moved quickly’ or similar. Adverbs slow writing down. Powerful verbs intensify it. And, as here, they can often alert us to deeper meanings.