Words With Wings

BowersThumbby John Bowers

No matter what genre you prefer, the best novels (unless they are comedies) have one thing in common: drama.

To write drama, you must be dramatic.  To be dramatic, you must use exactly the right words, every time. As I said before, anyone can string subjects and verbs together, but to be remembered, your writing must be memorable.  Nothing is more memorable (in my opinion, anyway) than drama.

The Right Words

I have two favorite kinds of drama: personal relationships and action.  Today we’ll talk about action, since it’s the easier of the two and easily the most fun to write.

I like military stories, the desperate struggle of armies on a killing field, the hammer of automatic weapons, the frantic clash of hand-to-hand combat.  Nothing is more exciting, nothing is more dramatic (and if you’ve ever experienced something like that, nothing is more terrifying).

I’ve read war novels that were about as exciting as a newspaper stories.  Stories like that don’t excite me, even though it’s my favorite genre.  When I read a battle scene I want to hear the bullets whizzing over my head, feel the heat from burning vehicles, smell the blood and gunpowder, and taste the fear in my mouth.

Action Verbs

The secret is in choosing the most dramatic word for each description.  Grenades don’t explode, they erupt. Machine guns don’t fire, they spit. Sergeants don’t yell, they bellow. Soldiers under fire don’t run, they dash. These are examples of action verbs.

Look at the following sentences; imagine how boringly these could have been written, and notice the words actually used.  Pay particular attention to the “action verbs” (in bold):cover

He fired twice, dropping them both, then ducked again as fresh laser fire smoked past his face.

Barely ten minutes later, Sirian artillery began to hammer the hillside again…

A third salvo cooked off and the targeted bunker suddenly erupted as the ammunition inside exploded.

Oliver raised his rifle and, aiming at knee height, fired six quick rounds through a forest of legs. Men with shattered limbs fell screaming as he ripped two grenades off his belt and jerked the pins loose. As return fire blew holes in the dirt around him, he flung both frags against the ground so they would bounce into the nearest Sirians. He shoved Danmark and Gustafsen down just in time; fragments whined over them as twin explosions ripped the night.

You get the idea. Action verbs replace the standard way we say things and make them more exciting.  In the paragraph above, Oliver could have “pulled” the grenades off his belt and “pulled” the pins; he didn’t.  Instead, he ripped the grenades loose and jerked the pins.  Those words, all by themselves, convey the drama of the action.  No other words are necessary.

Other Dramatic Words

And it isn’t just verbs.  The right nouns and adjectives enhance the drama as well.  In the same example above, Oliver fired his rifle through a forest of legs; instead of “two” explosions, the grenades went off at the same time, creating twin explosions.

A little imagination can direct you to the most dramatic way to describe almost anything. If you’re describing spring flowers on the hillside, why say the hillside was “covered by colorful flowers” when you could say “brilliant wildflowers splashed the hillside with color”? Which version helps you better visualize the scene?

Here’s a favorite paragraph from  A Vow to Sophia that uses both action verbs and dramatic  nouns to describe a damaged space fighter making a crash landing:

The QuasarFighter crunched down onto the left wing and began to skid in a sweeping arc, sparks showering out behind it like a volcano. Facing back the way it had come, completely out of control, the QF shot backwards off the runway, plowing through two feet of soft snow, replacing the sparks with a blizzard of white powder. Sixty yards later the ship slammed to a halt in a deep drift.

Another way to enhance drama is to hang a dramatic sentence out by itself, as a complete paragraph, to make sure the reader notices it.  For example:

FighterQueenCoverJohnny landed first, in case the cripple should crash and block the flight deck. He was whisked away to the hangar deck to await Onja and Tommy. As soon as he shut down systems, Johnny sat back in his seat and closed his eyes, totally wasted.

His first mission.

If every day was going to be like this, he wanted to go home.

Right now.


It can be damn difficult just to get your novel read by an agent or editor, but once you are in the same position as an American Idol contestant at audition. You have one shot and no room for mistakes.  You have to impress that reader or the submission will be rejected. The best way to avoid rejection is to submit a memorable novel, something the reader (agent or editor) will not soon forget.  Dramatic writing is your best chance.

Give your words wings with action verbs and dramatic nouns.

And keep it tight.  Tight writing is the subject of another article.

John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.

He’s also published a mid-grade book, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.

All of his works are available on Amazon.com


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