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Choosing the Right Verb

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January 16, 2017

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Verbs are an essential part of any sentence, but not all verbs are created equal; there are two categories of verbs: weak and strong. Strong verbs should always be chosen over weak verbs. Strong verbs hold the power to grab the reader’s attention and convey exactly what is happening: creating mood and imagery in just a few words. Weak verbs, on the other hand… well, in a word, they’re boring and will be lucky to even pique the reader’s interest. Let’s look at some examples so you can see just how important choosing strong verbs over weak verbs is.

Jacob was walking across the road when a car horn sounded. He turned his head. A car was coming towards him. He ran off the road before it could hit him.

Did anyone else fall asleep while reading that? I’ve highlighted all the weak verbs so you can see who the culprits are making this scene so boring. These verbs barely tell the reader anything about what’s happening. How fast is the car going? How close is it to hitting Jacob? There’s also a lack of tension because of this—the reader can’t determine if Jacob is in danger of being hit or not. Now let’s replace those weak verbs with strong ones:

Jacob was strolling across the road when a car horn blasted. He whipped his head around. A car was zooming towards him. He lunged off the road before it could plough into him.

Okay, now we’ve got some more detail. By using action verbs, the reader now knows that the car was speeding towards Jacob and that he only had seconds to get off the road, which is why he had to lunge instead of run.

Let’s try another example, starting with weak verbs:

Jasmine hung off the edge of a cliff. Her feet moved around, trying to find a rock to rest on so she could pull herself up, but there was nothing. “Katie!” she called to her sister, who was a few feet away, her back turned. “Katie, the rope broke. Help me!”

            Katie turned around. “Jasmine!” She ran to her, taking her sister’s arms and pulling her to safety.

Despite the fact Jasmine is hanging off the edge of a cliff, potentially about to plummet to her death, there’s a lack of tension. She’s ‘moving’ her legs around trying to find purchase, making it seem as though she’s used to dangling off cliffs, which seems to be confirmed when she ‘calls’ to her sister rather than screams, terrified she could lose her grip at any moment. Even her sister appears slightly disinterested when she ‘turns’ around. Let’s get a bit of tension and momentum going in this scene by using strong verbs:

Jasmine dangled off the edge of a cliff. Her feet scrambled around, trying to gain purchase on a rock so she could heave herself up, but there was nothing. “Katie!” she screamed to her sister, who was a few feet away, her back turned. “Katie, the rope broke. Help me!” 

            Katie whirled around. “Jasmine!” She flew to her, gripping her sister’s arms and hauling her to safety. 

Again, the strong verbs convey the tension of the scene. If you want your writing bursting with life and painting scenes so vivid that readers feel as though they’ve been yanked into your book, then avoid weak verbs as much as possible. These include words such as walked, sat, stood, and turned, to name a few. Instead of using these ‘boring’ verbs, go to a thesaurus and find ones that convey the action you require.

Sarah, Editor at Aurora House

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