Pinches of Salt 5: Use Strong Verbs

Howdy! Today in the Pinches of Salt series is one of the seemingly great commandments of creative writing: Thou Shalt Use Strong Verbs. This is another one of those take-it-as-gospel pieces of writing advice that comes from a very good place, but like most of these bits of advice, it’s extremely easy to go overboard with it. “Use strong verbs” ties in with the advice of “don’t use adverbs” – the idea being that good writing comes from taking advantage of the multitude of striking, evocative verbs that exist in the English language. A good verb can build character or atmosphere in an achingly elegant way. Is your character walking down a street where tall buildings are? Or is he trudging down a street where tall buildings loom? Or strutting down a street where tall buildings stretch towards the sky? Those sentences are quite different in tone, and each says something about the character and their setting at that moment. As a writer, you have verb upon verb upon verb at your disposal, and you can help your writing shine – glow, sparkle, pop, dazzle, effervesce – by paying close attention to your verb choice.

But the Strong Verbs advice is easy to misunderstand and easy to overdo. I’ve seen this before in online writing groups: someone will post a sentence, and someone else will tell them that they have used a “weak” verb (or worse, a “passive” one – I don’t even know what that means, because they usually aren’t talking about passive voice) and that they should replace it with a “strong” one. And often they’re right, but sometimes they’re not, and a careful writer needs to understand that “strong” verbs aren’t always going to improve a sentence.

First of all, what is a weak verb? Honestly, I have no idea. Weak is subjective, as is strong. But people often mean verbs like “be”, “move”, “walk” or “put”. Those aren’t terribly descriptive verbs. They tell us nothing about how the verb is being performed, and if we wanted to make sentences containing those verbs more descriptive, we’d need to add an adverb, and as we all know, they are the devil. There are very often more interesting verbs that could liven up that sentence. As above, why walk when you can strut? Why move when you can slink? But sometimes, simple is better. Sometimes the how is not nearly as interesting or important as the what. If Jenny is walking down the platform of the train station, scanning the carriages to see the man she has been waiting for for twenty-five years, her heart in her mouth and her head going over and over the words of the life-changing secret she’s about to reveal, I’m not sure I care too much about what her feet are doing. Sometimes we need the simple, everyday words to blend into the background, moving our characters forward while not drawing attention to themselves.

Perhaps one of the most vital things to consider when choosing your verbs is voice. I often see, for example, “place” being used instead of “put”, as if mere “putting” is far too mundane a word to merit inclusion in the scene. But this often sounds unnatural, especially in deep POVs of characters with a casual voice. How many times in real life do you say “Oh, just place that on the table” or “I placed it in my pocket”? This is one of the most important things to remember about strong verbs – it’s not enough for them to be strong, they must be right. “A man was on the stairs” might seem like an objectively weaker sentence that “A man slumped on the stairs” or “A man lurked on the stairs”, but if the character saying it is six years old, that simple “was” is probably the right choice of verb.

Another place to be really careful of “strong verbs” is when they’re verbs of attribution (i.e. in dialogue tags). It can be really tempting to see “said” as a weak, dull verb and want to replace it with something more descriptive, but this is a temptation worth resisting most of the time. “Said” is a nice, basic verb that almost becomes invisible when read. And if you’re writing good dialogue and well-formed characters, you shouldn’t need to tell your readers how the words are being said. For example: “‘Stay the hell away from me,’ Anya said as she snatched her arm away, her eyes flashing fire.” Anya could spit those words, or hiss them, or yell them. But does she need to? It’s pretty clear from her words and her actions that she’s pissed off, so what would we gain from adding another layer of pissed-offness? (As an aside, that sentence doesn’t even need “said” – we could use the action to identify the dialogue: “‘Stay the hell away from me.’ Anya snatched her arm away, her eyes flashing fire.”) So keep an eye on your dialogue tags, and save the stronger ones for when you really need them. Characters ejaculating, exclaiming, pronouncing, agreeing, rasping, yelling, crying, exhorting, pleading and generally strong-verbing all their words gets noticeable really quickly.

And finally, beware of verbs that just, however much you’d like them to be, aren’t verbs. Don’t get me wrong, verbing is a cool thing and I love it. I love the evolution of language and how we can play with words to create new meanings. But shoehorning words into places they don’t really go should be approached with caution. If there isn’t really a verb that means what you want it to mean, think carefully before you make one up, or repurpose one that means something slightly different, especially if you’re doing it just because think you should avoid adverbs. Done infrequently and well, coining a new verb can be evocative and interesting, because you’re clearly playing with the language. But overdo it, and it signals to the reader that you’re not fully in control of the words you’re using. It breaks that trust between reader and writer, the trust that makes the reader feel they are in safe hands and keeps them in your story. No strong verb is worth that.


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