In the first sentence the biggest action is “ran”. In the second, the back “stumbled” and “stretched”. Those two verbs conjure up more specific action than the weak “ran” and, as a result, gives the sentence a greater immediacy, thus adding more excitement to the ending of the story.
In the above example “stumbled” and “stretched” are strong verbs. So, what’s a strong verb?
A strong verb describes the action in a specific manner evoking a clarity and conciseness to the sentence. Notice four attributes of strong verbs: descriptive, specific, evocative and conciseness.
One source I found divided weak verbs into linking verbs and vague verbs. Linking verbs are the “is, are, was, were, be, being” verbs. They don’t really reveal any specific action. Vague verbs operate just as the name implies. They talk about action but don’t deliver the specifics. For example “run” can mean saunter, sprint, dash, gallop, etc. What kind of running was actually performed?
Using strong verbs means there are some things to avoid:
- Avoid the “to be” verbs. These are the “linking” verbs I mentioned earlier, the “is, are, was, were, be, being” verbs. They link the subject to the predicate but little else. For example, if describing your character’s height, instead of writing: “He is tall.” Say, “He rockets to the stratosphere.” Maybe a little wordy, but “rockets” arouses a much more vivid picture of the character’s height.
- Avoid the passive voice. The passive voice combines a linking verb with another. This may go over in business writing, but for fiction the passive voice really slows things down. It goes like this: “The bird was singing early this morning.” The linking verb “was”, in this case, combines with “singing”. It’s better to say, “The bird warbled at the crack of dawn.”
- Avoid “he said” and “she said” (in some cases). In the past when attributing a character’s statement, writers avoided the familiar “he said” or “she asked” for more colorful phrases such as: he interjected, she bellowed, he roared, or the double entendred he ejaculated. In recent years many books on writing have shied away from recommending such “purple prose” and have emphasized returning to the simple, “he said”. But, the pendulum has started to swing back, not completely, but in a reasonable way. For example, your archeologist hero has been captured by the villain and sits tied up in the dungeon. The bad guy is desperate for the treasure map and leans in close. “Where is the map?” he asks. In this case “ask” is a weak verb. How about? “Where is the map? he demands. “Demands” conveys the villain’s desperation better than “asks”. But, do us all a favor and use those strong attributives sparingly.
Google “strong verbs” and you’ll find articles with a listing of strong verbs. Print out one the lists and keep it near your computer. Let it remind you that there are verbs much more powerful than the vanilla ran, said, did, came, is, etc. Use the alternative strong verb and watch your writing soar.