"The Power Of Transparent Verbs"
by David Swinford, IWW Admin
by David Swinford, IWW Admin
It's not uncommon to encounter a comment in a critique of a chapter or piece of fiction that says something like: "You use a lot of "to be" verbs. Try replacing them with more active verbs. It will make your writing less passive."
Often, this is sound advice, but implicit in this advice is the assumption that "to be" verbs are weak and passive and thus, should be avoided in fiction. In fact, it has become almost an unwritten rule that good fiction writing avoids the use of "to be" verbs. Yet, that is a bit like concluding that if too much salt can be bad for you, one should avoid salt altogether.
Properly employed, "to be" verbs can add power and variety to your fiction. Consider
the opening paragraph of Hemingway's classic story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place:
Note the number of "to be" verbs Hemingway employs; yet, this is a very effective opening paragraph. It sets the scene, elicits a mood, creates atmosphere and skillfully sketches character. Why then are "to be" verbs so often considered inappropriate for fiction?
"It was very late and everyone had left the cafe‚ except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the caf‚ knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him."
Active verbs such as, staggered...yawned...grinned...hugged, have the power to stand alone and still create images for the reader that include emotional connotations. One can picture these actions complete with associated feelings.
The "to be" verbs, is...are...was...were, do not evoke specific images. They have no clearly associated emotions. Thus, compared to strong active verbs, they appear weak and passive. However, that appearance ignores the true power of "to be" verbs.
"To be" verbs are linking verbs. Their job is to link or connect the subject of a sentence to other information - usually modifiers or modifying phrases. Go back to Hemingway's paragraph and look at the modifying details that are linked to the subject. Therein resides the true power of "to be" verbs.
Hemingway was a journalist and he knew how to employ dramatic, telling details to set a scene or elicit a mood. The error many novice authors make is not in using "to be" verbs but in how they utilize them. Consider the following example:
"He was so angry, he was about to explode."
The "to be" verbs link the subject to modifying details that tell the reader something about the subject, and therein lies the difficulty; they tell rather than portray or dramatize. The linking verbs are not allowed to carry a full load of telling details. Compare it with the following example:
"He was a quaking volcano, forehead reddening, eyes sparking, cheeks quivering, breath escaping in hissing snorts."
This portrays the man as a volcano about to erupt. There is no need to tell the reader that the man is about to erupt with anger. The telling details dramatize his anger, and the verb, "was," simply becomes transparent. What the reader receives is not the associated image and emotions of an active verb, but the carefully crafted image and emotions of anger, powerfully, yet transparently linked to the subject.
If you are one who likes rules or guidelines, make it your personal rule or policy to take full advantage of the power of "to be" verbs by linking them to telling, dramatic details. Set the scene, capture mood, create atmosphere, sketch character, and if you do it well, the details are what the reader focuses on, thereby rendering the "to be" verbs transparent. There is great power in transparent verbs. Use them well and they will create variety that enhances your writing.
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