To Be or Not To Be: When To Avoid This Common Verb

Sorry, Billie. “To be” verbs are dead.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.

For real.

This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.

In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.

Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.

I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”

To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?

“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.

Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.

The Quick Fix: Past Continuous

Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.

Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class.

It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.

Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.

Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:

Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.

Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.

Next Step: Kill the Narrator

All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.

To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.

Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.

Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes.
b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.

In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.

When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!

Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose.
b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.

Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.

Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How

If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.

Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.

Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn.
b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.

Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks.
b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.

Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water.
b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.

I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.

Conclusion

Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.

To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.

What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.

Twisting and Turning: an update

Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.

I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.

I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.

The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!

I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.

I have been studying some short story writers and hopefully absorbing some of their brilliance. I’ve finished: Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, The Garden Party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan, and The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami. I’m halfway through The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu. Eventually, I might put together some thoughts on each of these. I really don’t think there’s a bad book in the bunch, but it’s a pretty eclectic collection of styles, so maybe not for everyone.

Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.

July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…

I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!

NYC Midnight Update: Round Three!! 2019 Short Story Challenge

May is more than halfways gone and I haven’t done a single post! Sorry about that. I’ve started coaching soccer and t-ball, and I was away up north for an education outreach thing and somehow the month has slipped away from me.

I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on here. I found out last week that I placed 2nd in my heat for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with the dreaded “Romantic Comedy” genre. I complained about it HERE.

I’m incredibly excited to even be in the third and final round. The first round had over 4500 competitors, round two we were narrowed down to about 750, and now we’re down to only 90 people in round three. Before this year I hadn’t even made it to round two in the short story competition.

So I have 24 hours to complete a 1500 word story. The genre is open, the subject is “a side-effect”, and the character is “a grave digger.”

I decided to go with a ghost story. I’m done the first draft and am awaiting feedback from my faithful readers, those who are available at the very last minute, haha. There are just under 8 hours left now. So I hope I don’t have to make any major changes.

I will keep you update, and hopefully will be a little less busy after this and be able to post more frequently. Thanks for reading!

NYC Midnight Update: 2019 Short Story Challenge

Woohoo! Oh, wait… WHAT?!?

Well, this has been a great week for me in writing news! I just found out that my story “Cheese-Head” (Genre: Fairy Tale, Theme: Superhuman, Character: A Cheese Maker) placed second over all in the first heat for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, and I’m moving on to round two! Which means I’ll be glued to my computer for the better part of this weekend.

I have three days to complete my next challenge. The prompt is Genre: Romantic Comedy, Theme: Anxiety, Charcter: A Brewer.

Now, Rom-Com is pretty close to as far from my comfort zone as I can get aside from full on Romance. I’m not super comfortable with Comedy, either, but my comedy flash fiction piece “Pi in the Sky” placed third in its heat last year, and “Cheese-Head” is as much comedy as a fairy tale, so I think that part might go okay. Romance though… ugh.

Wish me luck!

I have to submit this piece by midnight on Sunday. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, if you head over to the Story Laboratory and read the above-linked comedy piece, you can let me know what works and doesn’t work with my previous attempts at humour. I need all the help I can get!

Finding Your Balance: How to Show AND Tell Effectively

Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”

The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.

In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.

What is Telling?

“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.

Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.

When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.

Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.

The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.

Good Telling vs Bad Telling

Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.

  • a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
  • b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.

In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”

Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!

Let’s look at another example of telling with style.

  • a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
  • b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.

Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.

Adverbs: Telling in Disguise

Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.

  • a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
  • b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.

Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:

  • a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.

But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”

Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:

  • a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.

Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.

Everyone’s favourite “Show, don’t tell” quote.

What is Showing?

If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.

There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.

Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.

The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.

Good Showing vs Bad Showing

Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…

  • a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
  • b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
  • c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.

Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.

  • d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.

Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.

When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.

Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.

  • Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
  • Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
  • Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.

In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.

Choose wisely, and show with caution.

Finding Your Balance

How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.

But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.

Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.

Discussion

What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.

Blood, Sweat, Tears… and Success!

I take it all back. You’re pretty cool.

So last week, I had a bit of a vent after a particularly horrendous bout of drafting, editing, and rewriting. In my mentally and emotionally exhausted state, I said some pretty terrible things about my friend, Fantasy.

So I’m a little embarrassed to share this next piece of news with you.

That horrible, no good, very bad story I was writing? Well, all of the figurative blood, sweat, and literal tears paid off. I won second place in The Arcanist’s Magical Short Story Contest! You can see the announcement HERE.

This is all extremely exciting to me. I’ve never won a real writing contest before. I have yet to sell one of my short stories in a semi-pro or pro market (but I’m working on that!).

And second place came with a $250 USD cash prize which, I’m pretty sure, is more than my book made in the first year. This is officially my most successful piece of fiction writing!

Better yet, the winning stories and the runners up, will be published in a collection called Magic, Mayhem & Monsters coming out later this week!

Stay tuned!

I’ll post a link as soon as I have one.

The absolute best thing about this whole experience, though, is how validating it is to be recognized after I worked so hard on this story. I say it all the time: if you keep working, keep failing, and keep trying again, eventually you will succeed. That is all you have to do. And sometimes it sucks (just see my rant). Sometimes I feel like I’m just telling myself this fairy tale to drive off the swirling void of depression. But it’s proven true once again.

Fail. Learn from it. Fail again. Keep trying. Your next attempt will be a little bit better. Eventually you’ll get it right!

I’m newly motivated to keep working on my short story submissions this year. And as my editor friend has assured me, it won’t always be this hard. The more you fall down, the easier it gets to pick yourself up again. You start to notice those cracks in the sidewalk before you catch your toe. Practice makes progress.

Now I need to send a huge shout out to my readers during this whole process. Some of these benevolent spirits read every single draft! That’s a lot of work in a very short time. And even those who were only able to read one version all gave me valuable insight into what was working and what wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it without you guys! I should get them to write the next installment of Critique Mystique.

Thank you to everyone who reads this, and comments, and offers support on my bad days. I’m so glad you’re here to celebrate my successes with, too!