©2010 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray
Verbs do stuff. They do action. The boy whacks the ball. The boy whacks the tree. The boy whacks the cop and goes to jail. The boy slices the ball. The slice cuts under the ball to create underspin. Now the boy is a tennis player. A slice in tennis is a clever shot. Change sports. A slice in golf means you did something bad and now your ball zooms into the thicket of the Black Forest. Zooms is a strong verb. Caroms into the forest. Sails into the forest. Arcs into the forest. Sails into the forest. Wobbles into the woods. Dives into the woods like a duck with an ass full of birdshot. These are strong verbs. Zooms. Caroms. Sails. Wobbles. Each verb paints a piece of a word picture.
Strong verbs give the writer control over the word-picture. Word pictures make good solid fiction. The language of fiction is word-pictures. If you write strong verbs like hammer curve wobble duck fly flee float whittle spit, then your sentences will hug the page grabbing the reader by the vitals.
Style in fiction comes from making choices. Choices in words. Choices in syntax. Let’s expand that sentence above: The boy whacks the ball and runs to first base. Whacks is strong, but runs is generic. Generic verbs do tepid action. Tepid, timid, no zip. Generic verbs like runs (walks, talks, eats, sits) fit so many places:
- The boy runs to first base.
- The movie runs for three weeks.
- The man with one arm runs drugs.
- The little moron runs around the top of the cereal box.
- The governor of an un-named state runs for president.
- When she heads into the wind, her nose runs and her ears burn.
- Snot runs from her nose, spoiling the screen test.
To find your style, you fill the verb-slot with a generic verb like runs. And then you rewrite, cranking different verbs through the verb-slot.
- The boy trots to first base.
- The boy races to first base.
- The boy waddles to first base.
- The boy sidles to first base.
- The boy lopes to first base.
- The boy gallops to first base.
- The boy booms to first base.
- The boy shoots to first base.
- The boy tiptoes to first base.
- The boy swarms to first base.
- The boy heads to first base.
- The boy bicycles to first base.
- The boy rides to first base.
- The boy rockets to first base.
Strong verbs come from strong nouns. Hammer is a noun. You can grip the handle of the hammer and pound nails into the deck. Rocket is a strong noun that makes a strong verb when dropped into the verb-slot. The golf ball rockets into the woods. Weak verbs come from weakness. Their function is to make strong verbs weak. If the boy could possibly have hammered that golf ball it you might have thought that it seemed to disappear into the woods. Two verbs here, both weak.
There are four kinds of weak verbs. Four opportunities to write down a weakie instead of hammer slice whack, etc. Let’s make a list: passive voice, subjunctives, infinitives, and verbs of the interior.
Passive Voice. Passive voice verbs reverse the linear flow of English syntax. “The harpoon was thrown by the mad captain.” English gets its power from the clean line of subject-verb-object. Passive voice switches the subject with the object. A gob of passives confuses the reader. Who threw that harpoon?
Subjunctives. Subjunctives like would, should, could, may, might, must drain the energy from the writing: “The harpoon should have been thrown by the mad captain except for. The harpoon could have been thrown by the….” Direct action vanishes, to be replaced by hesitation and other thought rituals.
Infinitives. Infinitives made with the preposition “to” transform a nice strong verb into a roadblock: “To throw the harpoon, the mad captain would be forced to….” Action backs away from the infinite spacing of infinitives.
Verbs of the Interior. Examples: know, think, understand, realize, consider, wonder, agree, acquiesce, assume, feel, need, figure, etc. Interior verbs destroy word-pictures: “The mad captain thinks about throwing the harpoon. The mad captain understands the import of throwing the harpoon. To understand how the mad captain could have been feeling at the time of throwing, with all this water coming down, you’d have to have realized, assumed, actually, that eventual acquiescence to the throb of the whale just might have been considered a….”
Weak verbs slow the language down. They put the brakes on action. Weak verbs bring along the structures of argument, persuasion, evasion, politeness, and political correctness. A structure deployed by academic writers is “It is interesting to note that….” A structure deployed by essayists is If-Then, which loads the sentence with a probable cause-effect sequence. If the boy hits the ball, then it might rocket into the trees. Probability demands a weak verb. Would and could and should and may and might and must suck the action out of the action verb. Might hammer. Might rocket. Should hammer. Would hammer. Must rocket or else. In everyday speech, a subjunctive paces the spoken language. Softens it up. Puts a speech-space in between the speaker and the listener. Could I borrow your sandwich? Would you consider allowing me the opportunity to? In fiction, subjunctives crowd out action verbs.
- Subjunctive — may might must can could should would.
- Infinitive — to hammer, to think, to allege, to assume.
- Passive Voice — the ball was struck by the striking boy.
- Interior — think, know, feel, understand, assume, allege, realize, wonder, suspect, consider, believe, opine, as in have an opinion about.