War on Was

This blog post actually comes from an in-person request to talk about the old “Showing vs. Telling” discussion.

Hands up, how many people rolled their eyes at the thought of hearing “show, don’t tell.” Congratulations, you have probably been part of a creative writing class (or at least an English class that did a section on creative writing). I admit I don’t remember a lot of my Senior English class in High School, but for the creative writing section towards the end, I do remember that being said over and over again. “Show, don’t tell.”

Eye rolling aside, as overused as that advice seems to be, it is a good piece of advice overall (I make it often as an editor). As a reader, it’s much more interesting to be shown what’s happening than being told. I mean, which one of these seems to be more interesting?

A: “It was raining. It made Tim angry.”

B: “The rain fell down the window. Tim watched, clenching his fists.”

Votes? I’m going to guess at least the majority say B. Why? Because A tells us what’s happening (It’s raining. Tim’s angry) B gives an image of the rain falling to picture and shows what’s happening to let us know Tim’s angry. It’s just not as interesting being told as it is to be able to picture things.

Obviously, this is a pretty common problem people have. As a writer, you have a picture in your head. It sometimes slips away that your reader isn’t seeing what you’re seeing. Also, it’s easier to just say what’s happening in your head than explain every movement. You can see your character’s angry, so why wouldn’t you put “He was angry”? The problem is well known enough that it’s even spoofed in the Futurama episode, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings“:

Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!

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buzzfeed.com

Like getting past “Hey look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, I think learning to show rather than tell is something many writers simply start to grow out of as they read and write and edit more. After enough time, you get more comfortable and stop trying as hard, and that makes for better writing (in my opinion at least). The note I generally leave in manuscripts I’m editing is, “What is he/she doing? How would we know they’re sad/angry/happy/etc.

Of course there are suggestions to help weed out telling. Unfortunately, I think many suggestions are far too often abused. The one I hear most often is Don’t use To Be verbs.

Now, I completely understand that piece of advice, and I often point out places not to use them in manuscripts I’m editing. “To be” verbs (is, are, was, were, am, been…) are weak. They don’t have an image associated along with them. Picture “She ran.” You can see what’s happening, right? Now picture “She is.” The fact that “she” exists is all you get from the second. Not thrilling reading if something’s supposed to be happening. If any other verb is possible for an action, you probably shouldn’t use was, “It was raining”? “The rain fell.” “She was running”? “She ran.” Just by taking out the to be verb the sentences become stronger, and are showing, not telling.

This “to be” verb problem is well know (This site, for example, has an entire article about it) and generally easily correctable. The problem starts, however, when this tip is abused. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to” is good advice. “Don’t use to be verbs” isn’t.

Going back to that English class Senior Year of High School, the teacher actually gave us the task of writing the entire assignment (a 10-page short story) without using any “to be” verbs. Now, I can understand you try to make a point in English classes about things, and taking things to extremes help some people switch out of problem writing entirely, but what most people I know took away from that exercise was that “to be” verbs are evil and should be avoided at all cost. I admit, I spent a good portion of class trying to figure out how to switch out all my “was, weres, and be’s” and it took me a long time to feel all right using any sort of “to be” verb in any of my writing a while after that.

And that’s why I classify it. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to.” If there’s a better, stronger word you can use, use it. Don’t spend time, however, avoiding “to be” verbs at all costs. Some times you need them, and trying to take them out just makes the writing awkward.

Is Main Street a sleepy part of town? It’s ok to say “Main Street was never busy.” You don’t have to try to finesse the sentence to “Main Street sat in the center of town, never busy.” If you prefer the second, all right, but “to be” verbs are normal. People speak with “to be” verbs. Things can be described with “to be” verbs. It is important to not bore people with a lot of telling in your work, but it’s also important to keep your writing sounding natural.

So, as with everything, don’t take every rule as gospel, ask for help/critiques, and trust yourself.

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