Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 27, 2017

To Be or Not to Be

Cassidy trying out band instruments for her new school next fall. No decision yet, but, alas, her arms weren't long enough for the trombone, her chin (?) not suited to the oboe. She is considering the trumpet, like Daddy; the French horn, like Mommy; or the baritone, like sister Riley.

This is not my kitten, but it was just too adorable not to share from a friend's post to Facebook.


To be.  A highly irregular verb
Is.  Present tense singular
Are.  Present tense plural
Was.  Past tense singular
Were.  Past tense plural
Been.  Past Perfect

 What would we do without the verb "to be"? From "Let there be light" to "Bless, O Lord, this ring to be a sign of the vows . . .," the verb "to be" is one of the most essential tools in our language. And, alas, like adverbs, so-called "rule-makers" have cast it as a villain.

I've no doubt those who need rules for everything meant well. They were attempting to keep authors from "telling" their stories, like an ancient storyteller, instead of "showing" the story by getting inside the protagonists' heads and letting us see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. When rule-makers told authors to avoid the past tenses of "to be" (was and were), they were offering a way to avoid passive prose. Giving authors a boost toward writing in a more active mode that would make readers sit up and take notice.

The trouble was, of course (please note the use of "was"), that too many authors took the advice literally, interpreting avoiding "was" and "were" as a goal in itself, something that would miraculously transform their early efforts into deathless prose.

It just ain't so.

Yes, if you look over your work and it's jam-packed with "was" and "were," it's likely you are "telling" instead of "showing"; i.e., writing passively instead of actively. (For more on this, see my blog posts of 7/21 & 7/28, 2013.) But basically, just like adverbs, "was" and "were" are important aids to our language, and there is no reason to shun them, as long as you don't overdo it.

Hmmm. I can't help but wonder if a fear of "was" and "were" is at the heart of some authors switching their writing style to present tense instead of the traditional past tense. Pretty hard to be accused of being passive when you're using present tense!

Seriously, do not be so terrified of "was" and "were" that you stand on your head to avoid them (or garble your prose by simply leaving them out, as I once saw in a contest entry I judged). If you don't overdo it, they are perfectly legitimate ways to say what you need to say.


Below are the opening sentences of my about-to-be published The Lady Takes a Risk. By pure coincidence this excerpt, written several months ago, incorporates three forms of the verb "to be."

   It is not easy to be the daughter of a despot duke. For that matter, Lady Amelie Sherbrooke was forced to concede, there were likely earls, barons, tavern-keepers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, and tailors whose daughters considered them quite as despotic as the Duke of Wentworth. 

From Nora Roberts's Carnal Innocence - a small portion of the seven-paragraph characterization I have quoted previously as one of the finest ever written. (So outstanding it was read aloud at a national conference awards ceremony of the Romance Writers of America.)

   For Tucker, life was a long, lazy road. He didn't mind walking it as long as he could do so at his own pace. He was affable about detours, providing he could negotiate back to his chosen destination. . . . He was easy-going and well-liked by most. . . . Of course, there would always be some who muttered that it was easy for a man to lend money when he had more than enough.

 From Tami Hoag's Dark Paradise:

   The world suddenly seemed a vast, empty wilderness, and she pulled into the yard of the small ranch, questioning for the first time the wisdom of a surprise arrival. There were no lights glowing a welcome in the windows of the handsome new log house. The garage doors were closed.

Opening lines of the Prologue to Running Hot by Jane Ann Krentz:

   Martin was going to kill her.
   She stepped off the gangway and onto the sleek, twin-engine cabin cruiser, wondering why the cold despair was hitting her so hard. If there was one thing you learned fast when you were raised by the state, it was that ultimately you could depend only on yourself. The foster home system and the streets were the ultimate universities, awarding harsh degrees in the most basic kind of entrepreneurship. When you were on your own in the world, the laws of survival were simple. She had learned them well. 

From A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin:

   One Eye ripped through the undergrowth, spraying snow. His packmates followed. Up a hill and down the slope beyond the wood opened before them and the men were there. One was female. The fur-wrapped bundle she clutched was her pup. Leave her for last, the voice whispered, the males are the danger. They were roaring at each other as men did, but the warg could smell their terror. One had a wooden tooth as tall as he was. He flung it, but his hand was shaking and the tooth sailed high.
   Then the pack was on them. 

Opening lines of Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell:

   Sir Henry Forrest, Banker and Alderman of the City of London almost gagged when he entered the Press Yard, for the smell was terrible, worse than the reek of the sewer outflows where the Fleet Ditch oozed into the Thames. It was a stink from the cesspits of hell, an eye-watering stench that took a man's breath away and made Sir Henry take an involuntary step backward, clap a handkerchief to his nose, and hold his breath for fear that he was about to vomit.

 From a first-person novel - To the Nines by Janet Evanovich:
 His hair was dark and his eyes were dark and he looked like he frequently traveled through places where men's hearts were dark. 

Clyde was right about the first Susan. She was very nice. But she only knew Singh from a distance. And the same was true for the other four Susans. 


Traditionally, most fiction is written in the past tense. Therefore, writing in the past tense without using the past tenses of the most frequently used verb in the English language is patently absurd. The supposed rule against "was" and "were" was not laid down to get rid of every instance of those words. It is merely a warning flag that if you find you're using a lot of "was" and "were," your writing is likely too passive. Too standing on the sidelines and narrating the action, rather than having your characters get right in there and live it, bringing readers along with them. 

As with adverbs, "was" and "were" are immensely useful. And correct. Just don't overdo it. If you are, you need to do your homework on the subject of "Show, don't Tell," one the most basic rules of writing fiction. One that cannot be ignored. Modern writing does not "tell" a story from the outside, from the viewpoint of a storyteller looking at the action from afar. Today's fiction is up close and personal, "shown" from the viewpoint of whichever person is the main character in a scene. "Show, don't Tell" is not a rule you break. (Please note my blog posts on Show vs. Tell cited above. And I'm sure there are oodles of articles on the Net as well.)

So . . . don't be terrified of "was" and were." Just make an effort to use them wisely.

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

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