Amid the writing advice about weak verbs and passive voice, there is also a directive to eliminate the is-was verbs.
Is and was are states of being. Sure, they state facts about things that exist. But there’s no doing. There’s nothing active. Nothing happens. There’s no progress, no movement. Nothing dynamic.
A rock exists. But a rolling stone, now that’s going places (rimshot, please).
A sentence built around a weak is-was verb typically goes:
subject: is / was : object
We use these in dialogue all the time. Mid-argument, you might say ‘I was right.’ Past tense, statement of fact, spoken word, nothing wrong there.
In narrative description however, weak is-was verbs are deadly dull. They invite questions that need answers.
For example, each of these sentences is inert, raising more questions than they answer:
- The water was cold. How cold?
- The sun was hot. How hot?
- Nigel was an accountant. By profession? By nature? By character? More!
- The sword was sharp. Sharp enough to do what?
Sometimes a plain statement of fact is short, punchy and dramatic in it’s own right. But it’s rarely enough on its own; it needs followup. If every sentence reads that way, there’s no craft, no imagination, and nothing to draw the reader into your story. There’s no cause and effect; no consequences.
There’s almost always a better re-write hoping to enliven the narrative, such as:
- The flowing water chilled her hand, until her fingers numbed with the cold.
- The sun beat down, blistering the exposed skin in her hands and face.
- Nigel’s plain grey suit and tie, thick-rimmed spectacles and fussy demeanour screamed ‘accountant.’ [with apologies to accountants]
- The blade bit deep as it sliced into the knight’s leg.
Each of these builds a mini-world with dramatic tension. They are active and descriptive, without tipping over into purple prose. There’s more craft, specificity and movement in each one.
I’m on a mission, editing my manuscript to take out all the instances of ‘was’ that I can from narrative description. With only a few exceptions, a re-write produces better, more specific prose, and a more dynamic reading experience. This is good.
See what I did there?