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Verbs are the muscle of a sentence. If you’re reading back your writing and it seems unclear and lacklustre but you don’t know why, a misused verb is normally the problem.
In this fortnight we will be exploring how to replace those weak, flabby verbs with power verbs! Through a series of audios, lessons and exercises you’ll discover how to identify verbs that aren’t pulling their weight and how to spice up a sentence with verbs that evoke strong images.
TOPIC ONE: The Power Of Verbs – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
TOPIC TWO: What Is A Strong & Weak Verb?
First, we need to be clear on what is meant by strong and weak verbs in creative writing, because they’re actually grammatical terms too.
In grammar, a strong verb is one that changes its stem when it changes its role in a sentence. For example, ‘sing’ becomes ‘sang’ in past tense.
In grammar, a weak verb is one that doesn’t change much at all. For example, ‘kiss’ becomes ‘kissed’.
However, when we talk about strong and weak verbs these aren’t the definitions we’re using. It has nothing to do with grammar. Paradoxically, one of the strongest verbs grammatically is actually one of the weakest verbs in creative writing terms (that verb is, ‘to be,’ which gives us the words, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘is’ etc.).
We are defining a strong verb, in creative writing terms, as one that works hard. A weak verb is one that doesn’t.
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TOPIC THREE: How To Identify & Fix The Verb ‘To Be’
One of the key ways to fix weak verbs is to circle every verb in a scene and determine if it’s doing the work it should be. If not, replace them with something that works harder. Below are some examples of how to identify and replace, ‘to be,’ verbs.
“There were three men smoking cigars on the patio.”
The above is not a good sentence. A much better way to write this is:
“Three men smoked cigars on the patio.”
Avoid as much as possible using, ‘It was,’ or, ‘There were,’ to start a sentence. As always, there are exceptions. For example, “It was raining,” is a very hard sentence to reconfigure. You could say, “Rain fell,” but if you do that once or twice it starts to stand out and trip up the reader. Whereas, “It was raining,” is kind of invisible as it’s used so much. So in the above instance, look out for them and replace them only if they’re awkward and don’t need to be.
‘To Be’ Continuous Past
This normally appears during a retelling of a past story.
“I was running through the forest. Zombies were chasing me.”
These are weak sentences and not as strong as:
“I ran through the forest. Zombies chased me.”
The second is much more direct, immediate and present.
There are times when you need to use the continuous past, usually for things that are happening concurrently. For example:
“I was watching TV when the phone rang.”
But nonetheless keep an eye on it and tighten when needed by searching for the words, ‘She was’, ‘it was’, ‘he was,’ ‘I was’.
‘To Be’ – Passive Voice
Zeroing in on the verb, ‘to be,’ can also help you pick up passive voice. Passive voice is another reason why your manuscript can seem convoluted and unclear.
“Russia was invaded by Napoleon.”
This is not as punchy as the more active sentence:
“Napoleon invaded Russia.”
‘To Be’ – Show Don’t Tell
Finally, the verb, ‘to be,’ can point out when you’ve told rather than shown. For example:
“It was cold.”
What a nothing sentence. If you challenge yourself to get rid of the, ‘was’, you are left with having to reconstruct the sentence completely. The below is a much better sentence for so many reasons:
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TOPIC FOUR: Weak Verbs
There are many weak verbs that don’t add much to a sentence, and you can train your ear to listen for them. Consider this sentence:
“The fire went up the walls. I got the hose and put water on the flames.”
The verbs in there are quite lame: ‘went’, ‘got’, ‘put’, ‘was’. They don’t even sound particularly pleasant. Consider the difference when they are replaced with stronger verbs:
“The fire licked up the walls.”
“The fire raced up the walls.”
“The fire surged up the walls.”
“I grabbed the hose…”
“I fumbled for the hose…”
“…shot water on the flames.”
“…drenched the flames.”
“…drowned the flames.”
“I seized the hose and blasted water on the flames.”
Can you hear how much better those rewrites sound? We haven’t reconfigured the sentence; all we’ve done is replaced the weak verbs with strong ones.
When considering verbs look hard at the verbs you use as beats between dialogue. If your characters are always ‘sighing’, ‘looking’, ‘smiling’, ‘nodding’, and ‘shrugging’, it gets a little boring (and makes them look like they’ve got some kind of tick).
Watch how real people behave when they talk. What are their beats? Do they stroke their beards, spread their palms, or flick their hair? Do they gaze, regard, stare, consider? Choose some verbs and actions with nuance that are visual and engaging. So when you write dialogue your characters come to life.
TOPIC FIVE: Adverbs
You can’t talk about verbs without talking about adverbs. The adverb has been much maligned, and many a writers’ guide will tell you to remove them all together. However, adverbs can add rhythm to a sentence and when used sparingly, can deepen the impact of a sentence.
An adverb is a word that is used to describe a verb or adjective, altering the meaning of that verb or adjective by assigning it a manner, place, time or degree (e.g. gently, here, now, very etc.). For example, quickly walking or very hot (as you know from your lesson above, it is better to say hurrying rather than quickly walking, and scalding rather than very hot).
If you use adverbs, do so carefully; don’t use them to prop up a weak verb. Instead of, “Hit him hard,” (hard being the adverb) say, “Punched him.”
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By carefully considering your verbs and doing an editing pass specifically to tackle them, you will elevate your manuscript levels above where it was. So whenever you come across a great verb, make sure you write it down. You never know when you might want to use it.
Verbs are the muscle of a sentence. If you’re reading back your writing and it seems unclear, a misused verb is normally to blame. To fix a weak verb, you must first circle each verb in a scene and see if it is working as it should. If it isn’t, replace it with something stronger.
This exercise will:
- Help you identify weak verbs and,
- Teach you to find alternative words to replace them.
WHAT TO DO:
Circle the verbs in these sentences. Are they working? If not, come up with some strong, hard-working replacements and post your efforts in the Verbs Forum. Do your peers agree with your assessment? How does their choice of verbs change the meaning and imagery of the sentence?
- He came over to the picnic table. “Hey, ladies,” he said.
- She put the pie on the table. The children ate it within two minutes.
- The nightmare came into my sleep again. The ghosts were back. I was lying on the cold grass and I was screaming in horror.
- I got my raincoat because it was so wet.
- “I’m furious right now.” He looked at her with rage in his eyes. “Don’t ask me to be calm.”
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