How many of us have used ‘was’ far too much in our narrative? Look back through your stories and you will see that it occurs more often than is necessary, which seems crazy because it seems such an innocuous, inoffensive word, but too much use of it can be detrimental to your narrative. This is because it has a tendency to slow overall sentence rhythm and stutter the flow of writing, making it appear clunky and contrived.
Of course, it must be said, we all do it. It’s a matter of habit, but bad habits can be just as bad as using bad grammar.
So why does this word limit narrative, and why?
To begin with, it acts like a barrier between you and your reader by limiting how you apply yourself descriptively. Your role as writer is to transport the reader into the story through description, dialogue and narrative. How effective these are together is down to you as a writer. Sentence structure plays an important role in linking these three elements. Even more important are the words to choose for each sentence and some of the words we like using the most are ‘was’ and ‘there’.
Rather than it being a case of lazy writing, it is more like the writer doesn’t know an alternative way of communicating something without resorting to writing ‘this was here’ or that was there’ or ‘she was at the door’ or ‘he was standing in the hallway’.
We write sentences like this without even thinking about it. It’s a matter of habit. But why write any differently? Well, the drawback with too much use of ‘was’ is that it tends to lead to a reliance on too much telling and not enough showing, and as all writers know, ‘telling’ can kill any story by making it just too clunky to read.
So how do you know when you use ‘was’ excessively? That’s down to practice, practice, practice. It’s a matter of being thorough when you read through and edit your work. Don’t be afraid to be judicious when it comes to throwing out words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes or chapters that don’t make the story work.
Take a look at these sentences:
1. Jane walked into her office. There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity. In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.
2. The temperature was cold and it made him shudder. He licked his lips. There was a bitter taste in the air. This was the coldest he’d known.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with these simple sentences, the placement of ‘was’ makes it hard to expand on the action. The word ‘was’ tells us either something happened, or something occupies a place or position and therefore there isn’t much room to go into detail.
Let’s look at one of them in more detail:
Jane walked into the office.
There is nothing actually wrong with this sentence. This is simply informing the reader of a character’s action and doesn’t need adding to because it sets us up for the next sentence.
There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity.
This sentence tells us something, but doesn’t actually show us. ‘There’ and ‘was’ act as inhibitors to the sentence to stop further description. If you do expand on it you may end up saying ‘there’ and ‘was’ again.
In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.
Again, this sentence is simply telling us there are flowers on the chair and that it makes her smile. There is no expansion in the description.
Overall, these paragraphs lack enough description, interest and sentence structure. They tell us, but they don’t show us.
Now what if you did it like this:
1. Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk. It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.
This second paragraph gives more for the reader to work with. Instead of telling the reader there was a note and a bunch of flowers, it allows to reader to share the curiosity, by showing it instead. Each instance of ‘was’ has been eliminated.
2. The temperature dropped, made him shudder. He licked his lips, tasted the bitter air. This was the coldest he’d known.
Notice that this second set of paragraphs is tighter and reads better. They offer the reader some interest by showing or hinting something more, all by removing the word ‘was’.
You’ll notice that example 2 still contains a necessary ‘was’: This was the coldest he’d known. In this instance, the sentence needs it to convey the character’s inner thoughts.
Let’s look at the re-written first example in more detail so see how it has improved:
Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk.
By removing the words ‘there’ and ‘was’ we can set up a neat following sentence by making the character spot the note rather than simply telling the reader it’s there. This leads into the next sentences:
It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.
We’re informing the reader that the character is curious, and we’re showing how the flowers catch her attention, rather than telling the reader. Now our curiosity is sparked, we’re interested to know who they’re from, and it’s all done without a single ‘there’ or ‘was’.
Of course, knowing which ones to take out and which to keep are down to practice, but by using fewer of them in your narrative you keep your sentences tight and rhythmic. It also allows you to show rather than tell. This is fundamental in your narrative.
Just like most fiction writing, you need to find balance. Using ‘was’ is still important as long as it is used in the right places, it’s a word you simply can’t write without, but because it is a verb used in the past tense, writers rely on it too much, and just like adjectives and adverbs, you should use them sparingly.
‘There’ works in the same way. We still need it, but there are better ways to describe than always referring to ‘There was this’ or ‘there was something’. For example:
There was a light in the doorway.
This description is boring because it tells us, but doesn’t show us. The sentence could be much better, like this:
A faint orange glow flickered from the doorway...
See how different this sentence is? It shows us there is a light; it adds a little atmosphere and allows the reader to want to know more, all by removing ‘there’ and also ‘was.’
Just remember to take a little time over your sentence structure. Just ask yourself, ‘Am I using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much? If so, start removing them. You will end up with much tighter sentences, better constructed paragraphs and better choice of words to engage your reader.
Next time: Using the senses.