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? Continue reading

Say What? – Writing Great Dialog

The following was originally published in Fiction Fix Newsletter in January, 2002.

father and daughter

What are they talking about? Try making up a conversation in your head – it’s great practice.

We talk every day. We hold conversations wherever we go–at work, out shopping, or at home with our families. You could say we’re all experts at casual chatter. Why, then, do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?

I’ve always been a whiz at making characters converse, but when some friends in my writers’ group asked me how I do it I found myself stumped. How could I explain something that came naturally? It wasn’t as if I ever had to learn to write dialog–I just do it. So I started thinking about my process, trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use and the rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.


It’s pretty simple–listen to people when they talk. What sorts of things do they say? How do they say them? Listen for the rhythms in their speech. Listen for their vocal ticks. (Do they say your name a lot when talking to you, for instance? Or maybe they use a certain phrase repeatedly.) Replay conversations in your head during quiet times. In fact, make up conversations in your head.


Today’s movie audiences don’t buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema.My brother and I are constantly quoting movie lines. Drives the rest of our family nuts. We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at movies and during TV time. If you’re usually a visual person, try closing your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and style of the characters’ conversations. Continue reading