Thursday, March 06, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- "To Be" Verbs

Avoid using "to be" forms in narrative because they are weak verbs.

I do adhere to this rule whenever possible. As with using SAs or adverbs, when I write a sentence that contains "was" as the verb, I always give a hard look. Can it be written with a stronger verb? Many times the answer is yes.

Does this mean you should never use "was?" (Or "is" if you're writing in present tense.) Of course not. There will be times when you need to use it and it will read just fine. But as with our discussion of SAs and adverbs, I want to make you aware of your use of this verb. If you choose to use it, do so with purpose.

There are two forms of uses for "was." I suggest limiting your use of both of them. The first is as the verb itself: She was in darkness when she awoke. The second is as part of a past progressive verb--a verb that takes place over a period of time. She was lying in darkness when she awoke.

In the first form, you're simply left with a weaker verb. How you rewrite the sentence will depend on your own author's voice. I would write it like this: She awoke to darkness. That sentence now has no extra words and so gives a punchier effect. We are more able to feel the character's reaction to waking in the dark.

The second form, as defined, is about connoting passage of time. This is fine if you want to show passage of time. But in higher action scenes, a past progressive verb is going to slow things down.

Consider this opening for a novel:

She was washing dishes when her world began to blur.

Chelsea Adams hitched in a breath. Her skin was pebbling. She was all too familiar with the dreaded sign. God was pushing a vision into her consciousness.

Black dots were crowding her sight. She dropped a plate. Its crack against the porcelain sink was loud. Her fingers were fumbling for the faucet. The hiss of water ceased.

That's the opening to my novel Web of Lies--loaded with "was." Here's the real opening:

She was washing dishes when her world began to blur.

Chelsea Adams hitched in a breath, her skin pebbling. She knew the dreaded sign all too well. God was pushing a vision into her consciousness.

Black dots crowded her sight. She dropped a plate, heard it crack against the porcelain sink. Her fingers fumbled for the faucet. The hiss of water ceased.

You can still find two "was" verbs in there, both as part of a past progressive verb. Looking at the opening now, four years after writing it, I'd still leave those two past progressive verbs in. But I sure wouldn't want to load it up with "was" as I did above. Too repetitive. Weights the scene.

Being too quick to use "was" as a verb by itself is lazy writing. It's easier. But how much more effective the line may be if you find a different way of writing it. For example, take this opening:

The noises were faint, fleeting.

Twelve-year-old Erin Willit opened her eyes to darkness lit only by the green night light near her closet door, and the faint glow of a streetlamp through her bedroom window. She felt her forehead wrinkle, the fingers of one hand curl, as she tried to discern what had awakened her.

No doubt the above first sentence could be quickly written. And it does give the idea of vague noises. But it that the strongest the sentence can be? Does this sentence enhance the emotion and tone of the scene? Here's the actual opening sentence for Brink of Death:

The noises, faint, fleeting, whispered into her consciousness like wraiths in the night.

That line certainly took more time to write. And I played with it in editing before getting to the final version. But now, five years after writing that line, I wouldn't change a word.

Whenever you find yourself typing "was," I suggest you flag it. If you were to highlight all your "was" verbs in red, how much red would you see on the page? Can you find a stronger way to write these sentences--particularly those that use "was" as a verb by itself?

Read Part 8


Pam Halter said...

I used to be the Queen of "was." I remember one time using "was" 5 times in 2 sentences. HA!!

I do highlight every "was" to see how many times I've written in passive voice. I still fall into that, but I think I'm getting better.

It's hard because we tend to talk in passive voice. But when we write, we have to stay away from it.

Timothy Fish said...

I think the primary point of this rule is that we desire elegant writing. When we remove “to be” verbs, out writing becomes more fluid, more active. The example, “She was in darkness when she awoke,” has a static feel to it. It gives us a sense of where we are, “in darkness,” but it doesn’t tell us much about what is happening. By changing it to “She awoke to darkness,” we gain a sense of transition. She was asleep, but now she is awake and she is moving forward to whatever she will be.

One thought I have is that after we have gone through our manuscript, removing “to be” verbs, reducing static writing, we may reach a point where we think we are done and we fall short of our ultimate goal of creating elegant writing. Going back to our darkness example, we might ask ourselves whether “She awoke to darkness,” is the best we can do. Perhaps it is. It follows the rule and in the context of the story it may fit very well, but would it be as elegant as something like “She peered through the darkness as sleep relinquished its hold,” or “She awoke with darkness covering her in its silent protection,” or “Darkness held her prisoner when her slumber fell away?”

When we replace “to be” verbs, we need to do so in such a way that the reader understands the implications of what it means to be in that state. Sometimes we do that with other sentences that precede or follow the offending sentence, but the “to be” verbs that are the least elegant are those that are not supported, so it is prudent for us to provide the implications of the situation within the sentence.

Consider that if the reader already knows that darkness equals death, or darkness equals salvation, then the simple statement “She was in darkness” is extremely powerful, much like when Jesus stepped into the world and said, “I am.” In those situations, the “to be” form gives the most punch because it brings the action to a halt and gives the reader a moment to consider the implications of the current situation.

Pam mentioned passive voice. Going through and eliminating “to be” helps greatly in eliminating passive voice, but many instances of “to be” are not passive. If our goal is more elegant writing, we must consider that passive voice is needed in some places, (like in this sentence) though we should limit our usage of it. So, we can say that the need for passive voice is another justification for including “to be” within our writing.

Ed J. Horton said...

Brandilyn, I can't even begin to tell you the help I'm receiving from these posts. They're forcing me to dig deep into one of my manuscripts. I've spent the last four days going through it, ridding unnecessary speaker attributions and an overusage of names (long live pronouns). Now you've set me on a course to de-was the ms. Just working through the first half page of the Prologue has challenged my mind over and over.

Speaking of an overuse of names, I need to confess, I've coined a new word that will mean the same to me as rewrite or revision. Brandilynize. Going forward, I'll thoroughly brandilynize every ms until it sits up and sings!

Thanks for sharing your insights. Oh, and for letting me take liberties with your name.