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.