Preying on the Weak (Verbs)

Originally published September, 2007


Felt, looked, seemed…

They’re the most basic of verbs–the ones used to identify a state of being. We sometimes need them in our writing, and a story without them might well be florid and over-the-top. But an excess of weak verbs sucks the energy from a story. A good writer learns to stalk those weak verbs like prey and cull them from the literary herd.

How can you identify weak verbs without memorizing a list? It’s pretty simple. Weak verbs are those that don’t stand up well in a sentence without support. Take the modifier away from “The boy seemed hostile ” and you have “The boy seemed.” “The boy seemed” is still a sentence, but it describes a kid who simply… gives the impression of something. “He felt sad” becomes “He felt.” Again, still a sentence, but what does it tell us?

Weak verbs lead writers into temptation – the temptation to simply tell our readers how our characters feel or act instead of painting a word picture for them:

She felt lonely.
He seemed upset.
The puppy looked terrified.
The child seemed friendly.

In each of those sentences the writer uses a weak verb to tell his readers something. Painting a word picture may take longer, but the results are far more satisfying, allowing the reader to make an emotional connection:

She felt lonely.

becomes…

She laid on the sofa and curled herself into the shape of a comma, staring at the TV screen.

Your goal is not to tell the reader that your character felt alone but to show the reader a lonely character and make them feel her loneliness, too.

I have a little trick for getting around weak and “telling” verbs in my writing: I pretend I’m making a movie. Let’s say that my lonely character’s name is Mary. If I’m making a movie about lonely Mary, I likely won’t have a narrator pop into the scene to say, “Mary felt lonely.” I’m going to have to show Mary in the act of being lonely and let the viewers infer from her actions that she feels utterly alone in the world. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of telling an audience what a character is feeling–they have to demonstrate it. Good fiction writers don’t have that luxury either.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying that these verbs don’t have a place in your writing or that you need to eliminate them at all cost. Occasionally you’ll find you need them. And occasionally you’ll have to flat out tell your readers something, too. But good writers are aware of weak verbs and telling, and their effect on a story. When you’re working on a rewrite and you’ll likely stumble across many a weak verb. If the verb needs to go, then take that sucker down and rewrite something more powerful. And don’t feel bad about it; that little verb was not strong to begin with, and never would have been. Culling the weak is nature’s way, and it’s the writer’s way, too.

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