Plane IntensityFlying wicked fast through the sky doesn’t feel fast at 36,000 feet.

No one has ever turned to the passenger in the next seat and said, “wow are we ever booking it through these clouds!” This despite the fact that the airliner is screeching through the air at 500 mph.

Yet flying 120 mph about 50 feet off the ground in a helicopter feels fast (butt-puckeringly fast, in fact, depending on how tall the trees are ;). And driving a Jet Ski at 35 mph directly on top of the water feels even faster.

The Lesson:

Action alone doesn’t equal intensity.

Action seen through the right Perspective equals intensity.

In movies and comics, storytellers achieve perspective through staging.  Here’s a brilliant example of the difference perspective can make (an example I stole from Mark Kennedy* over at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels):


Increasing A Sentence’s Intensity Through Perspective

Applying this principle to writing, we see that the action itself – that is, the verb – only creates real intensity when viewed through the right perspective.  Watch how intensifying the verb alone doesn’t intensify the mental image all that much:

  1. “He hit me.”
  2. “He decked me.”
  3. “He Steven Seagal’d my ass.”

But once I change the perspective you get:

  • “His fist freight-trained into my upper lip, snapping my head back into darkness.”
  • or “My nose snapped underneath his knuckles, blackening my senses till I felt the cold floor tiles against my cheek.”

Verb-wise, “Steven Seagal’d” and “freight-trained” are about on par with one another, but the latter sentence creates a sharper mental image.  Even more to the point, “snapped” isn’t nearly as vivid a verb as “Steven Seagal’d” but the intensity of that last sentence still trumps any of the first three.

Changing the Subject Changes the Perspective – and the Intensity

Despite the commonplace to ‘use strong verbs,’ a powerful verb tied to a week subject will only spin its wheels. Choosing the right subject foregrounds the action in the mind of the reader.

Here are a few more examples:

Ugly: “She walked languidly and suggestively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”

This sentence lamely attempts to convey the sexual overtones of the lady’s descent by slapping on an abundance of lame adverbs. Standard advice is, “replace adverbs with better verbs” — and that’s solid advice that yields something like this:

(Not so) Bad“She cat-walked her way down the stairs, enchanting each of her male guests in turn.”

But changing the perspective, does what just improving the verbs alone can’t:

Pretty Good: “Her hips swayed with each step, beckoning her guests’ attention.”

Or “Her suitors’ eyes tracked each hip-sway and leg unveiling as she made her grand entrance down the staircase”

It works for Emotional Perspective too

Which sentence best captures the emotional sense of this photo?

Dark Streeta) As he trudged along the pavement, the man’s downcast eyes saw only the mean streets and dark pavement.

b) Trudging the pavement, the man’s downcast eyes were met by dark shadows and the grim sidewalk of mean streets.

c) Darkness piled over the man’s downcast head, limiting his sight to a narrow patch of grim sidewalk and desolate street.

How much of the differences between these sentences involves verbs, and how much involves perspective?

Bottom Line: writing with strong verbs is great advice, but those action words won’t have their full impact or intensity until you provide the right perspective/subject.

* Apparently, Mark Kennedy got the mouse drawings from the Disney book, The Illusion of Life.  Also, my thanks to Shane Arthur for asking a question about strong verbs that prompted this post.


  1. Tom Wanek on 12.10.2009

    You rock Jeff! I get a lot of great writing tips from other blogs (you know the ones ;), but this lesson on writing with intensity is priceless. And here’s the thing, I’ve heard you talk about applying perspective to writing before. Sadly, I had forgotten all about it.

    And for the other readers, please don’t think I’m blowing smoke here because Jeff is a colleague of mine. Please try this technique out for yourself. I promise it will take your writing to new heights.
    .-= Tom Wanek´s last blog ..What You Are Saying And Who You Are Being =-.

  2. Roberta Rosenberg on 12.10.2009

    Brilliant – thank you. I was thinking of Michael’s Chabon’s writing style as I slip-slided my way through the examples.
    .-= Roberta Rosenberg´s last blog ..MavenTweets for 2009-12-09 =-.

  3. Sue Horner on 12.10.2009

    Great perspective on the importance of strong verbs, something we all know but do not perhaps work on as hard as we might.

  4. Teresa Dietze on 12.10.2009

    Impressive! This presentation is clear and immediate, drawing me in as a person as well as a writer. I am impressed as much by what you left out as what you included. Thank you for sharing your artistry.

    What I like best is that you are demonstrating how to create depth of feeling and impact instead of surface action. You must live deep to do it.

    I love your quote also. And yes–there ARE demons in the deep. As a healer who addresses the energy issues related to what we call demons I can relate!

  5. Shane Arthur on 12.10.2009

    My respect for this post Steven Seagal’d my ass. My muse snapped under the weight of its value, humbling my ego till I felt the cold reality that I need to rub more of your writing against my brain.

  6. Jeff on 12.10.2009


    You crack me up ; ) Thanks for the comment.

    And thank you as well, Tom, Roberta, Sue, and Teresa!

    – Jeff
    .-= Jeff´s last blog ..Writing Intensity — Going Beyond “Strong Verbs” =-.

  7. Shane Arthur on 12.10.2009

    “She walked lan­guidly and sug­ges­tively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”

    This sentence reminded me of an analogy I’d like to share.

    Let’s say you’re at work and someone called you on the phone about a job interview you had that day with another company. You want to keep it secret from coworkers nearby, so you would answer in code like, “The grass is indeed greener on the other side,” indicating you got the job.

    “She walked lan­guidly and sug­ges­tively down the stairs and greeted her guests,” is therefore a sentence you’d want to “write in code,” i.e., hide how bad it is through revising it.

    Hope that made sense.
    .-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..shanearthur: @MikeSigers There is no spoon! =-.

  8. Carole Mahoney on 12.11.2009

    Thanks Jeff! Your posts are always fun and challenge my own perspective! Love the use of photos for the “ah-ha- I get it now!”

  9. Suta on 12.11.2009

    This is what i called one of the quality posts
    .-= Suta´s last blog ..Helpful Information Regarding Affiliate Programs =-.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.