Weak Verbs are the Path to the Dark Side

Sat Dec 10 2016

The Empire Strikes Back, (C) Lucasfilm, 1980

Two things I regularly advise my clients to do are "show, don't tell" and to "avoid weak verbs." In my latest client's manuscript, I discovered a surprising connection between the two that I'd like to share.

Showing vs. Telling

Showing means portraying the world of your story in such a way that readers feel like they're watching events unfold, and from which they can draw their own conclusions about what's going on, why characters are doing things, and what it all means.

Telling means boiling the events down to summary facts, and explicitly stating for the reader what's going on and what it all means.

Telling, in this metaphor, is the dark side.

Weak vs. Strong Verbs

Weak verbs are the flavorless, banal, generic verbs of English. The ones that can be applied so broadly they become almost meaningless on their own. Weak verbs include stuff like "was," "moved," "had," "got," and many others.

Strong verbs are the juicy, interesting, and specific verbs. The ones with very narrowly-bounded meanings. Verbs like "sweltered", "raced," "panted," or "heaved."

Weak verbs are Master Yoda's fear, leading writers to the dark side of telling.

The Connection

Here are some contrasting pairs to show how this works, and I am in particular going to pick on the weak verb "was" (or "is," if you're writing in present tense):

The Dark Side The Light Side
Jack was really hot in the bright sun. Jack sweltered in the bright sun.
It was really hard for Betty to get her suitcase up the hostel's narrow stairs. Betty panted, heaving her suitcase up the hostel's narrow stairs.
The mechanic was missing a front tooth, while his secretary was missing two. A dark gap in the mechanic's smile marked a missing front tooth, while the gap in his secretary's spanned twice the width of his.

Notice the pattern? Everything on the Dark Side is a bare statement of fact: a situation boiled down to a summary, explicitly stating for the reader what they should take away from it. All of them center on the weak verb "was".

Everything on the light side, however, is a vivid description. A portrayal of events from which the reader is left to draw their own conclusion about how Jack's internal thermometer felt at that time, about the level of ease or difficulty Betty had with that suitcase, and even how many teeth the secretary was missing.

Once you see the evil that "was" leads to, it isn't surprising. That's what "was" (and "is", if you're writing in present tense) are for. The whole point of them is that they're the verbs we use in English to state facts.

Replace Facts with Descriptions

So stay off the path to the Dark Side. Eschew the banality of "was," because every "was" in your manuscript represents a place where you're doing the reader's work for them. A place where you're distilling the life in your story down to its skeletal form.

And when you focus on descriptions rather than facts, who knows where it might lead? The second you put yourself into Jacks' experience, your mind may well volunteer all kinds of great details that help paint the picture:

Jack sweltered in the bright sun. Persperation slicked on his face, trickling in rivulets to his upper lip, his chin. They gathered into drops, speckling his light-blue Oxford with small dark marks counterpoint to the huge dark circles spreading slowly from his armpits.

Now your readers know exactly how Jack feels in that moment.

Force yourself to avoid "was." Force yourself to re-center those sentences on the details of your story's moments; the details that bring your story to into the light where readers can see it for themselves.