WAS is a Four Letter Word
by guest blogger - Diana Cranstoun
|It was a cold and moonlit night.|
Discussions around editing and passive voice prompted the following balanced article listing pros and cons for using the word "was." Diana volunteered to write this article in the series on Writing Stronger - five proven areas for editing. Thanks, Diana, for these insights.
According to Michael Hauge, the job of the filmmaker is to elicit emotion in the audience. That responsibility holds equally true for the fiction writer. Our readers want to share in our characters' journeys, experiencing in a visceral way their joy and despair, fear and courage, trust and betrayal etc.
As writers, we’re told the most effective way to do this is to ‘show’ our stories rather than ‘tell’ them. A simple technique to 'show' is to use active, rather than, passive voice.
Passive voice – telling - holds the reader at arm’s length, and merely informs.
Active voice – showing - engages the reader, eliciting emotion in both reader and character.
One of the biggest culprits of passive voice? ‘Was’. It might only be a three letter word, but the writer must treat it with the same respect as its four-letter cousin. Rely on was too frequently and your writing will lose its power.
The Argument AGAINST 'was':
Take this simple phrase: He was walking. ‘Was’ plus an ----ing verb is about as passive as it gets, and is on the 'No, no, no, no, no!' self-editing checklist for many publishing companies. It’s boring and rarely suggests - or elicits - emotion in either character or reader.
He walked – is a little better, but it still doesn't tell the reader much.
Now try these for size. He strode. He strolled. He sauntered. He paced. He plodded. He shuffled. He waddled. He marched. He meandered. He slogged.
As a reader, can’t you see a picture in your head of how - exactly – the character 'was walking’? Doesn't that image evoke the emotion the character is feeling? And now don’t you want to use that other three-letter-word ‘Why?’ to ask why the character is feeling that way?
Get your reader to ask ‘Why?’ and you've engaged him. You've now elicited an emotion – at the very least, one of curiosity - in him.
The Argument FOR 'was':
It’s often suggested that during our final edit, we plug ‘was’ into our search option and eliminate its every use. Maybe that’s taking things a bit too far because 'was' does have a place in our stories.
In character dialogue. " You know, she was telling me the other day..." "I heard she was going into the army." "There was a sale at the shops today."
There is an argument to be made that too much showing can adversely affect the pace of a story. Think about the phasing or pacing of a song. If the singer sings each word, each phrase, at the same volume and with the same intensity, it's boring and turns the listener off. You need the quiet moments, the loud moments, the fast and the slow. That's one of the roles of 'was' in your book. Sometimes you just need that moment where you want to slip in a fact or piece of incidental information without making a big deal of it.
Ah, but what about the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, I hear you ask. In his famous opening line, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, Dickens uses the word 'was' ten times. That's right, ten times!
As always, whenever there's a rule, it can be broken. But it's not something I suggest you try to emulate. Dickens' effectiveness has everything to do with the poetic nature of his introduction and the fact that he was a genius. That's not the case for most of us.
So what's the perfect balance? Is there one? Check out the following links below and see how these best-selling authors from different eras deal with 'was'.
(Disclaimer: I've taken all these examples from the internet and am assuming they are genuine and error free.)
Chap One: 5,187 words x22
(random) 231words x10
Harry Potter/JK Rowling:
Chap One: 4588 words x92
Chap Five: 6,579 words x92
Chap 13: 3,189 words x49
Chap 16: 6,432 words x75
Chap One: 847 words x8
Chap Two: 796 words x1
Chap One: 2,771 x28
Prologue: 1,539 x31