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Strong Verbs Versus Weak Verbs In Fiction, by Kelly Inglis

We’ve all heard that we should be using strong verbs in our writing, but what are they, and why should we use them?

Strong verbs hold the reader’s attention. They create mood and imagery in just a few words, eliminating the need for further description.

His head hurt. He took a deep breath and tried to open his eyes. The pain was mostly behind them. He breathed deeply, knowing that it would hurt. He wasn’t sure he would be able to open his eyes.

This first narrative clearly explains that the character is in pain, but it’s a pretty mediocre description of how bad the pain is, what sort of pain it is, and so on. The reader needs additional information to understand the depth of this character’s pain. This is where using strong verbs comes into play. Compare this with the following narrative:

The throbbing behind his eyes threatened to overwhelm him. He gulped in a lungful of air, braced against the lurking white-hot agony that he knew would consume him when he finally mustered the courage to open his eyes.

This second narrative, using a similar number of words but employing strong verbs rather than weak ones, paints a much more detailed picture of just how much the character is suffering, and no further detail is required to convey this information to the reader.

Strong verbs are also essential in maintaining the momentum of a scene. They propel scenes forward, and they create and sustain tension. This is particularly important in action scenes, where using weak verbs decimates the tension. Consider the following exchange, where two brothers are gripping onto the edge of a life raft in tumultuous white water rapids, holding on for dear life:

“Jamie, I’m losing my grip,” Matthew said above the noise of the rushing water.
“Save yourself,” Jamie replied. “Tell Mum I love her,” he said before letting go of Matt’s hand.

That exchange, by using weak verbs, abruptly kills the pacing and tension of the scene. If someone is desperately fighting for survival, they wouldn’t ‘say’, ‘reply’ or ‘let go’. To maintain the momentum of the scene, it should sound more like this:

“Jamie, I’m losing my grip,” Matthew screamed above the howling water.
“Save yourself!” Jamie cried. “Tell Mum I love her,” he sobbed, then flung himself away from his brother’s outstretched hand.

The stronger verbs of ‘screamed’, ‘cried’, ‘sobbed’ and ‘flung’ preserve the tension within the scene and maintain the momentum that is critical to action scenes.

This second exchange also evokes powerful emotions, and this is another key feature of strong verbs.  Love, life and the threat of imminent death are all conveyed in this second scene. In an exchange between two people, using a weak verb like ‘said’ conveys little, if any, emotion to the reader. Apart from the words spoken, we have no idea of how the character is feeling. However, using strong verbs in place of ‘said’ tells us much more about the emotional undercurrent of the scene. A character might hiss, shriek, demand, or bellow in anger; they might sniffle, sob, or howl in sorrow; a child might whine, whinge, wheedle or beg to stay up past bedtime; lovers might murmur or whisper sweet nothings to each other. Those strong verbs establish the emotion of an exchange.

So what makes a verb weak? Verbs that are considered weak are those garden-variety generic words that can be used in countless situations. They’re handy, yes, but they don’t convey the intense or specific emotion of a scene, nor do they drive the action forward. Common examples of weak verbs include said, ate, walked, talked, slept, wrote, hurts, thinks, feels and got, to name a few. A great writing exercise for including more strong verbs in your work is to take those weak verbs listed above, and come up with as many strong verb variations as you can for each one (put your thesaurus down; no cheating!).

Weak verbs are also those that end in ‘-ing’. The ‘-ing’ variant of a verb is always weaker than the root word. Consider the following statements:

The intruder was prowling through the house.
The intruder prowled through the house.

‘Was prowling’ weakens the tension in the scene, whereas ‘prowled’ provides more intensity. Choose your verbs carefully to impart the greatest impact.

I’ve heard many a teacher and many a writer say you should always use strong verbs where possible, but weak verbs still have their place. Weak verbs have a tendency to slow down the action of a scene, and to reduce tension. No novel can maintain full-tilt action for the entire story, and the pace and tension ebbs and flows throughout. Using weaker verbs in the downtime between action scenes can be effective in conveying the slower pacing of those scenes.

She ate her sandwich…

…imparts the feeling that the character is having an unhurried, relaxed meal. In a scene where tension is reduced, using a weaker verb in the sentence is preferable to:

She scoffed down her sandwich…

…which conveys urgency, action, and possibly ravenous hunger.

So choose your verbs wisely, depending on the pacing, tension and emotion of a scene. Use the iron fist of strong verbs when writing scenes filled with action or tension but the velvet glove of weak verbs when scenes are less urgent or contain less strong emotion.

My best advice for using the right verb in the right place is to invest in a thesaurus and use it regularly. When you’re stuck for which verb to use, you’ll find the best verb, whether strong or weak, to fit the mood, pace and tension of every scene between its covers.

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Kelly Inglis’s bio page

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    Half Moon BayGirl Saves BoyHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodStillwater CreekLast Summer

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marlish Glorie #

    Hi Steve, many thanks for another great blog on writing. Greatly appreciated. Marlish

    June 15, 2013
  2. Hi Steve

    I agree with your premise here that strong verbs make a stronger piece than weak verbs.

    I was interested that you suggest using stronger verbs than “said” to convey emotion and action in a scene as I’m aware that a large body of agents, publishers and pundits advise never to use any other speech tag other than “said” (and avoid doing that if at all possible – by either admitting a tag all together, if possible, or using an action tag).

    And while I have no trouble with this about 80% of the time, there are times when I want to draw attention to the volume, tone and quality of the voice – and I don’t always want the dialogue to convey this. After all, in real life only 7% of meaning is carried by the actual words said.

    So it is refreshing to see another point of view on this.
    https://www.facebook.com/JeanetteOHaganAuthorAndSpeaker

    June 15, 2013
    • virtuefiction #

      Thanks for sharing the link Steve. 🙂

      June 16, 2013
  3. Oooh this is an interesting one. I thought it was a golden rule in fiction that no matter what, you must always write “said”. Not howled, screamed, whispered, grunted, muttered, sobbed, wailed, spluttered, intoned, answered, hollered; just said. And then let the power of your characterisation, dialogue and writing prompt the reader to imagine exactly how each line should have just been delivered… ?

    June 15, 2013
  4. Firstly, I’ll just make clear, since the first two comments are addressed to me, that this article has been posted by me as the admin for the site but has been written by Kelly Inglis.

    Both Jeanette and Rebecca have mentioned the conventional wisdom that speech in a novel should be attributed with the tag “said”. For example, “Hi,” she said (rather than, say, “Hi,” she beamed or maybe, “Hi,” she muttered.

    The advice to always use “said” typically stems from Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’. Stephen King did recommend the use of “said” as the default speech tag, but this was in the context of suggesting that “said” blends in when there is no real purpose served by drawing attention to how something is said. When there is a real benefit from drawing attention to how something was said, then this is not inconsistent with Stephen King’s advice in ‘On Writing’.

    For writers who have heard the advice to always use “said” but don’t really know why, I recommend reading ‘On Writing’ to evaluate the typical source of this advice for yourself.

    Some people take this to the extreme, and even attribute questions with “said” rather than “asked”.

    I agree with Kelly that speech tags beyond “said” can have a lot of impact, but I also agree with Stephen King that there is no need to draw attention to how something is said unless it’s relevant. I say go ahead and use “screamed”, “cried”, “muttered”, “crooned”, “spat”, “purred”, “ordered” or whatever – if it’s relevant and genuinely adds something. If it doesn’t serve any purpose to draw attention to how something is said, just use a generic attribution such as “said”.

    June 15, 2013
  5. virtuefiction #

    Great post and great site.

    It was interesting to see a couple of the commenters mention dialogue tags. As Steve explained by referencing Stephen King’s On Writing, many writers try to avoid tag variation and stick to the so-called invisible tag of “said”. If absolutely necessary, mixing up your dialogue with other tags is recommended as long as it serves a purpose and is not done in excess. This is typically the same advice found on writing forums and blogs on the use of adverbs.

    While advice like this is worth remembering, it can also be restrictive to new writers who are just setting out on their respective journeys. If a writer focuses too much on what is essentially “the perfect word”, their pace will grind to a halt. When I began writing I also found that most rules or general advice didn’t reference one another.

    For example, if I spent too much attention worrying about correcting “terrible” dialogue tags and adverb combinations (i.e. “he grunted angrily.”) I usually fell into a whole new problem, such as the “talking heads” syndrome. It would have saved much rewriting if I had read the supplementary advice: “But when writing dialogue, don’t forget to have your characters interact with each other and their environment.” I would also add: “Avoid using dialogue tags altogether if you can convey the conflict and maintain the pace without having to clarify who is talking.”

    The advice on strong verbs and most other writing techniques can be summarised as “be economic in your writing, but don’t overdo it.” The trap with strong verbs is that if it is done in excess, your prose will sound overwritten, pretentious and amateurish. In short, more is less.

    June 15, 2013
  6. Here is an article on speech tags by UK Sunday Times bestselling novelist and Creative Writing teacher Emma Darwin: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2011/05/talking-speech-tags.html

    June 16, 2013
  7. Hi everyone,
    I see that using strong verbs in dialogue tags has raised some discussion here! For much of my dialogue, I also usually stick with ‘said’ or ‘asked’. However, there are occasions where using something stronger is needed to convey more intense delivery of speech. I agree with Steve in that the use of those stronger dialogue tags need to used economically, and only to add intensity to specific situations, otherwise it will sound overwritten and pretentious as #virtuefiction points out.
    Cheers,
    Kelly

    July 31, 2013

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