Be More Than Being

Be More Than Being

Fiction is about things happening, and there is only one kind of word devoted to things happening; verbs.

"Put the power of the sentence into the verbs."

This is one of the most basic rules of writing, but it's worth discussing for that reason alone. The most eloquent sentence can be undone by a dull verb, and there are no verbs more dull than the state-of-being verbs—is, are, was, and were. They mean what their name implies. They denote existence and nothing else.

One of the first things I do when I finish a first draft is to "de-was/were" it. I try not to write them in the first place, but if I catch a lame sentence like, "He was by the road," I cringe and then go to work to see if I can make that all-important verb do some real work. There are times, of course, when a good "was" just works, so leave it, but make sure you at least question it before leaving it in.

What does "He was by the road" actually say? A male existed near a road. We could spice it up with some extra verbs, a la, "He was standing by the road," and get some more info, but it's still pretty boring. But how about, "He stood by the road?" It says nearly the same thing in fewer words, and now we've got the action attributed a little more closely to the man. So we've eliminated the state-of-being verb, but we're still left with a dull verb: stood. Now is the time to get creative and put the power of the sentence into the verb.

There are 50 different ways to stand. You can slouch, stand erect, hang, droop, wobble, ready yourself to jump, lean, shake, and sway. If your character needs to be unmoving by the side of the road, think about what kind of pseudo-synonym for "stand" might convey more information to your reader. "He wavered by the road." Here we see the guy swaying by the side of the road, perhaps from fatigue or from the narrator's impaired eyesight. Who knows, but it's more than what was just there.

And less. In one of my future columns, I'll talk about spreading out information across sentences and across whole stories, but a pinch of it shows up here. "He wavered…" does not connote very much about standing. It sort of half-suggests standing, as if you'd lost some of the meaning of the original sentence. If you were to just replace "standing" in your sentence with "wavering," you'd likely find that the reader no longer has a clear idea if the person is on his feet at all. That's when you have to take a good look at the surrounding sentences to see if you can inject the other half of the meaning of "being on one's feet" into them. "He stumbled across the bright desert sand and stopped. He wavered by the roadside." The preceding sentence fed the reader the first half of the standing information, and the "wavered" gave them the second half—and you never had to use the bland word "standing." Don't be afraid to alter other sentences if it helps you remove a boring "was." *(Again, in a future column I'll talk about breaking up and spreading ideas, plot, characterizations, meanings, etc., across a story, and why you'd want to do it.)

De-was/wereing can also help you to eliminate passive sentences. "The ball was caught by her," is passive because the subject, the ball, isn't doing the action of catching. "She caught the ball" gets the same info across in fewer words, and more closely links the woman to the action. But don't believe the hype that all passive sentences are evil. They're perfect in certain spots. Just don't overuse them.

De-was/wereing a manuscript also tends to highlight adverb abuse. Adverbs should only be used when you can't find a verb that will do all the work by itself. And state-of-being verbs are doing zero work. "He was running quickly" can be de-was/wered to "He ran quickly," but take the cue and realize that this is an opportunity to put the power of the sentence into the verb, not the adverb! Find a verb that means "ran quickly," and specifically one that has connotations you're trying to instill in the reader's head. "He tore past…" sounds like desperation; "He drove on through…" sounds like a powerful motion; "He jogged…" sounds like he's in no huge hurry and has been running a while; "He sprinted…" has the ring of levity and fleet-footedness.

Put the power of the sentence into the verb. A good verb will replace your state-of-being verb and your adverb and will give you nuances your sentence and story didn't have before. When you're done with your first draft, do a search for "was" and get to work.