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Weak Verbs

Sometimes you just need a simple verb: run, walk, sit, stand. Simple verbs are the workhorses of your prose. Use them when the action doesn't matter much.

Action verbs move your story forward and add definition to the movement.

It may seem arty to have your characters sit, smoke, drink coffee and chat. Please, I beg of you, don't make it the entire chapter. Their conversation should be tense and informative too.

Weak or simplistic verbs convey action but do not add further information. A verb that you had to modify with an adverb isn't a strong verb.

Weak: Sally ran fast.

Stronger: Sally sprinted.

Weak: Dick walked quietly into the room.

Stronger: Dick tiptoed into the room.

Weak: Jane hit the ball hard with the bat.

Stronger: Jane slammed the ball with the bat.

Sitting, standing, running, jumping, sighing, weeping, and laughing are all fine when used moderately. 

Finding a fresh way to say them or using a greater variety of verbs makes the story richer.

As a revision layer, I take a good hard look at all of my verb choices. Yes, it is tedious. The good news is, the more you repeat this exercise, the better you become at choosing verbs naturally. You recognize a weak verb when you type one.

I have a spreadsheet of basic verbs and replacements for them that I add to constantly. You can find lists of verbs on the internet. Here are a few to get you started.

Scroll through your document or underline common verbs in your printed draft and see how many you can change into something stronger.

Passive Verbs

1) A single, active verb is more effective than passive verbs or passive verbs paired with adjectives. 

Search and kill as many passive verbs as you can. Look for: am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been and any verb ending in -ing. A few passive verbs in a manuscript is fine; a few in a paragraph aren't.

2) Starting a phrase with a passive -ing verb implies the two things happened simultaneously.

 Dick danced, twirling plates on his head, and singing a song.

 Dick twirled plates on his head as he danced and sang.

Dick could potentially do those things at the same time if he was truly talented. 

  Picking up her briefcase and locking the door, Sally rushed off to work.

Sally can't pick up her brief case, lock the door, and rush off to work all at the same time. The sentence should read:

  Sally picked up her briefcase, locked the door then rushed to work.

If the items cannot happen simultaneously, change it.

3) There is a difference between passive voice and past tense.

Past tense means the action already occurred. 

Passive voice has to do with who did or did not do something. It almost always includes forms of the verb to be. In active voice, the subject does something. In the passive voice, something is done to the subject.

It is generally considered better to use active rather than passive verbs.

4) In the revision phase, as you read the sentences, identify the subject and verb.

Does the subject of the verb perform the action of the main verb or does he sit there while something or someone else performs the action? If the subject performs the verb, it is active. If it doesn’t, it’s passive.

  Passive: The victim was drowned around midnight.
  Active:  The murderer drowned the victim around midnight.

  Passive: Jane was scratched by Puff.
  Active: Puff scratched Jane.

In instances when the writer does not know the doer of the verb, the doer is not important, or there are many doers, it is acceptable to use passive verbs.

If you intentionally obscure whodunit, you might say, “Dick was murdered.” If you say, “It was just lying there,” you have indicated that it doesn’t matter who left it lying there or why.

5) A character might always speak passively as a quirk.

6) Linking verbs indicate a state of being, not action.

Do a search for: is, was, are, seems, becomes. These are red flags.

7) Passive verbs and modifiers shouldn’t be mixed.

If you begin a sentence with a modifying phrase, it becomes a dangling modifier if you follow it with a passive verb.

 Sighing softly, the book was placed on the table.

The sentence forgot to mention who sighed and placed the book on the table. Supplying the missing who turns it into an active sentence.

Sighting softly, Jane placed the book on the table.

Jane sighed softly and placed the book on the table.

Revising for passive verbs is a tedious chore. However, the more you practice using verbs correctly, the more natural it will become.

For more information on revision and proper verb usage, check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers. I don't revise a book without it.

Irregular verbs

Most verbs are regular and are turned into past tense by adding ed or en.

amble, ambled

be, been

Irregular verbs do not follow this rule. Here is a list of irregular verbs in present, past, then past perfect order.

Present tense: You are doing the action.

Past tense: You have completed the action.

Past perfect tense: You completed the action at some point in the past before something else happened.

arise, arose, arisen

ask, asked, asked

attack, attacked, attacked

awaken, awakened/awoke/ awakened

bear, bore, borne/born

begin, began, begun

blow, blew, blown

break, broke, broken

bring, brought, brought

burst, burst, burst

choose, chose, chosen

cling, clung, clung

come, came, come

dive, dived/dove, dived

do, did, done

drag, dragged, dragged

draw, drew, drawn

drink, drank, drunk

drive, drove, driven

drown, drowned, drowned

eat, ate, eaten

fall, fell, fallen

fly, flew, flown

forgive, forgave, forgiven

freeze, froze, frozen

get, got, got/gotten

give, gave, given

go, went, gone

grow, grew, grown

hang (things), hung, hung

hang (people), hanged, hanged

happen, happened, happened

know, knew, known

lay, laid, laid

lead, led, led

lie, lay, lain

loosen, loosened, loosened

lose, lost, lost

pay, paid, paid

ride, rode, ridden

ring, rang, rung

rise, rose, risen

run, ran, run

see, saw, seen

set, set, set

shake, shook, shaken

shrink, shrank/shrunk, shrunk/shrunken

sing, sang, sung

sink, sank/sunk, sunk

sit, sat, sat

speak, spoke, spoken

spin, spun, spun

spit, spat, spat

spring, sprang/sprung, sprung

steal, stole, stolen

sting, stung, stung

stink, stank/stunk, stunk

strive, strove, striven

study, studied, studied

swear, swore, sworn

swim, swam, swum

swing, swung, swung

take, took, taken

tear, tore, torn

throw, threw, thrown

wake, woke/waked, woken/waked

wear, wore, worn

weave, wove, woven

wring, wrung, wrung

write, wrote, written

As you go through your revision process, do a search for these verbs and make sure you have used them properly.

Made-Up Verbs

Without verbs, nothing would get done. The verb is the action part of the sentence. A subject performs the action.

Nouns and adjectives can be turned into verbs by adding the suffix ify, ize, ate, or en: deaden, digitize, fixate, immunize, originate, strategize, signify, sweeten.

Nouns and adjectives can be turned into verbs by adding the prefix be, de, or en: becalm, bedazzle, defrost, defrock, encompass, enmesh.

Made-up verbs have a suffix like ify, ize, ate, en, and ing added to them.

It is important recognize when you are using made-up verbs. If you are, make sure they aren't a cliché, are intentional, and used only once or twice in a manuscript. 

Using it as a dialogue plant and payoff works. One lone character might mangle the language on purpose. Someone can mock him with it. Those are acceptable uses of imaginary verbs.

These suffixes create subtle speed bumps which force the reader to pause or reread the sentence. The suffix ness is often a substitute for a stronger word. This is where a thesaurus comes in handy.

Revision Tips:

1, Search for them. 

2. Read the sentence. Does it flow smoothly? 

3. Is the word out of place in your setting?

4. Is it appropriate for the character to use it? 

5. Make sure words with these suffixes need to be there. If not, change them.

Verb Tension

I've written about this before, but it requires reinforcement.

I hate it when a writer doesn't know the difference between writing in present and past tense (I like both if done correctly). Lately I've picked up several books that have both tenses in the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. Those books quickly end up on my discard pile even if I genuinely enjoyed the premise. I can forgive one or two lapses, but not an entire book.

Verb tense cues the reader in to when an action took place. Verb tenses should change only when there is a change in time.

In terms of story structure, there are only two specific tenses to worry about: present and past.

It most commercial fiction, the stories are written in what is considered past tense. That doesn’t mean a sentence cannot use a different tense if required. Rather, the story is related as if it had already happened and the reader is only now learning about it from the point of view character.

Stories written in present tense are less common and relate the story as if it is happening right at that very moment to the point of view character. Writing an entire novel in present tense is tricky.

The rest of the complex verb forms are marked by words called auxiliaries. Grasping the six basic tenses allows a writer to control the timeframe of the scenes through the sentence structure.

Problems in sequencing tenses tend to occur with the perfect tenses, all of which are formed by adding words to the past participles: had, have, will, and will have. The most common add-ons are: be, can, do,  has, have, had, may, must, ought, shall, will, and would.

Verb tense alerts you to narrator intrusions.
          Sally didn’t understand yet that her life would never be the same.

Aside from poor foreshadowing, if you’ve been using past tense, you just launched the reader into a future timeframe.

Let’s review verb tenses in detail.

·Present tense: When using present tense, the verb choice reflects an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation that exists in the present. Few stories are written in present tense.
          I stroke his hair.
        His hand slides down my arm, his thumb searching for a pulse.

· Present progressive tense describes an ongoing action that is happening at the same time the statement is written. This tense is formed by using am, is, are with the verb form ending in ing.
          I am stroking his hair.
        We are walking the dog.
        The sun is shining.

· Present perfect tense refers to something that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues into the present. It uses have or had in combination with the past participle of the verb, usually ending in ed. Irregular verbs have special past participles.
          We have searched high and low and cannot find it.
        We have been using this process for five years.

· Present perfect progressive tense describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. This tense is formed by using has and have been and the present participle of the verb ending in ing.
          We have been considering the possibility of retiring to Florida.

· Past Tense
When using past tense, the verb choice expresses an action or situation that started and finished in the past and usually ends in ed. Irregular verbs have special past tense forms. Most commercial fiction is written in past tense.
          Sally reached for the knife.
            Dick raced down the stairs.
        I led the charge into the building.

· Past progressive tense is used to describe a past action which was happening when another action occurred and uses was and were with a verb ending in ing.
          I was reaching for his knife.
        Dick was racing down the stairs when the alarm sounded.

This tense is considered passive and writers are encouraged to do a search and kill for sentences using was plus ing. Try searching for the word was in your draft. It will take hours, but do it. Get rid of as many as you can.

· Past perfect tense is used for an action that took place in the past before another past action. This tense is formed by using had with the past participle of the verb.
          By the time we arrived, the fight had ended.

· Past perfect progressive tense references a past but ongoing action that was completed before some other past action. This tense is formed by using had been and the present perfect form of the verb ending in ing.
          Before the alarm rang, the firemen had been cooking dinner and playing poker.

· Future Tense
Future tense expresses a situation that has not yet occurred. It uses will or shall.
          Dick will go the store on Monday.
        Jane shall meet the deadline.

· Progressive future tense describes an ongoing or continuous action that will take place in the future. This tense is formed by using will be or shall be with a verb ending in ing.
          Jane will be singing with the choir on July fourth.

· Future perfect tense refers to an action that will occur in the future before some other action. This tense is formed by using will have with the past participle of the verb.
          By the time we arrive in London, the tour bus will have been waiting there for several days.

· Future perfect progressive tense refers to a future, ongoing action that will occur before some specified future time, using will have been and the present participle of verbs ending in ing.
          By this time next year, we will have been publishing and selling more books than we ever imagined.

Shifting viewpoint does not mean shifting tense. If you are attributing thoughts to a character, you do not shift into the present tense to express them unless you are writing the piece in present tense.
          Incorrect: “I really hate them,” she thinks.
          Correct: “I really hate them,” she thought.

Shifting tense and misuse of tense are plot holes. They are hard to ignore and interrupt the flow. It forces the reader to re-read a sentence or paragraph. Subtle, unintended time shifts create confusion. A reader might have to stop and ask, “Did he or will he?”

Perfecting verb tense is a rudinmentary skill every writer needs in their writing toolkit.