28 July 2013
Strong Verbs: The Writer's Action Heroes
This is the ninth installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work, now tentatively titled "The Infernal Aether."
Perhaps my most distressing writing bugbear is the scourge known as the “weak verb.” Verbs are action words, so it would seem that simply using a verb would tend to jazz up an otherwise unremarkable noun but, alas, that is not always the case. Some verbs are just so wan and lethargic they sap the life from entire paragraphs.
What is a weak verb? My definition is: a verb which conveys too little information or description. Hold on—a verb is supposed to be descriptive? Isn’t that the job of adjectives and adverbs? Well yes, adjectives and adverbs describe, but verbs can often do so as well, often better than any adjective or string of adjectives. A verb can even contain a metaphor, all in a single word. And a verb that can do all of that is what I call a “strong verb.”
Let’s take an example, a forlorn little sentence with a verb but not much action: She walked down the street. Did she now? Well, isn’t that something?
The trouble with the word “walk” is that it doesn’t convey how she walked. Did she creep furtively or saunter carelessly? “Walk” is somewhat ambiguous, which prompts us to tack on adverbs or adverbial phrases to refine our meaning. She walked furtively, or she walked in a daze, or some such thing. Now, I’m not one of those people who rail against adverbs, but I do recommend choosing a stronger, more descriptive verb before resorting to an adverb. If an adverb will further refine your meaning, go ahead and add it, too.
For instance, perhaps she ambled, tiptoed, sauntered, crept, or strode. Perhaps she even slithered, scuttled, or toddled. The words all mean “walked,” but they convey more information. They’re simply more descriptive, and they add more verve and dynamism to your sentences. In the case of “slithered,” the image of a snake will likely come to mind, an illustration of the metaphorical capacity of verbs.
Please note that not just any synonym will do. If you’re going to consult a thesaurus, please keep a dictionary nearby as well. Your devastating femme fatale had better not toddle down the street, and your elderly spinster had better not saunter in her orthopedic shoes. When your verbs are more descriptive, you have to take care with their often subtle connotations so as not to confuse your reader or muddle your meaning.
Another caution: Sometimes people just walk. Don’t go overboard trying to punch up something mundane with outsized verbs. If the action doesn’t require any more description, let it be.
This goes for the verb “to say” as well, at least in dialogue. In long exchanges of dialogue, it can be tempting to replace “he said” with “he muttered,” just to break up the monotony of he said-she said-he said-she said. There are ways of dealing with this, but overusing overwrought synonyms for “say” is usually a bad idea. Likewise for re-purposed almost-synonyms as in: “This is disgusting,” he grimaced.
Watch out for some of these commonly used verbs which convey almost no information on their own:
Have (to possess): He had a gun. Did he really? When did he have it? A week ago? Did he still have it? Was it holstered, or stuffed in his waistband, perhaps? Was he waving it, brandishing it, or aiming right at your head?
Be plus adjective: She was sad. Aw, poor thing. But how do you know she was sad? Was she weeping, or perhaps her eyes were dry but still pink and puffy. Was she gazing off into the distance with tears in her eyes, or balled up on the floor wailing? Don’t tell us about her sadness--show us her sadness.
Look plus adjective: He looked excited. As above, saying that a character “looked” excited is merely telling rather than showing. Was he jumping up and down and screaming at the top of his lungs? If so, it's obvious that he's excited, so you don’t have to tell us.
Get (to become): He got tired. Why get tired of something? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply tire of it?
Now, for Pete’s latest installment of The Infernal Aether, Chapter Four, let’s start with some examples of what he’s done right:
Augustus doesn’t react nervously, he flinches.
Augustus doesn’t sit or bend over, he squats.
Maxwell and N’yotsu don’t stand together, they huddle.
Maxwell’s equipment isn’t left in the sitting room, it is abandoned.
Maxwell does not hold Milly’s arms and legs, he pins them.
If I pluck the verbs out of their sentences, the difference is even more obvious. Which set of verbs seems more dynamic and descriptive?
react, sit, stand, leave, hold
flinch, squat, huddle, abandon, pin
Of course, there are some missteps. Pete used some unnecessary synonyms for “said” that ended up sounding redundant.
“Granted,” I conceded.
“Please stop,” I pleaded.
There are also some instances in which Pete might have used more vibrant verbs but didn’t. For instance, in the same sentence in which Augustus “pins” Milly’s arms and shoulders, the hapless butler must resort to “dealing with” her legs. I would suggest he might have wrestled or perhaps grappled with them, clutching at them, hopefully seizing or restraining them.
But that’s what editing is for…