As a ski instructor, the first thing I taught my students was how to take off and put on their skis. With my younger kiddos, we’d put on just one ski, slide around for a while, and then try two skis. From there, I would teach them the Pizza Stance, holding their skis like a slice of pizza (a V with their ski tips closest). But when we would take a break my kiddos would always ask me why everyone else was skiing in the French Fry Stance (with skis parallel). I told them (in a more roundabout and animated way) that they had to learn the basics before they could ski in an advanced way. Like any sport at all, you need to master the basics before you can reach the advanced levels.
Writing is no different. The biggest mistake I see with beginning writers is their paucity of knowledge when it comes to mechanics and grammar. Mastering grammar is an unavoidable necessities of the craft. If you don’t remember when to use “me” instead of “I” or when to use “who” instead of “whom” – go to your local library or bookstore and pick up some grammar books (lots of great ones out there too: The Elements of Style is particularly noteworthy, although books like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves or Painless Grammar are more fun to read). More than anything, do not use these books as a quick reference. Learn the material. Practice it in your own writing every single time you write – even if it’s just a note to your friend or a text message. Nothing destroys a good communication faster than bad grammar.
More than any part of grammar, you must master To Be verbs.
With my writing students, I always compare “to be” verbs to cake. Cake, I tell them, is a wonderful dessert to have at the end of a healthy dinner. However, it is horrible to eat a whole cake for dinner. Such is “to be”. If your writing is filled with am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been – and the combinations and variations thereof (will be, might have been, was being, etc.) – you’re eating the whole cake. You are going to give your stories a stomach ache by the time you’re done.
To Be verbs mean that the character exists. That’s it. They aren’t doing anything besides existing. Think of this in terms of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue – he’s literally debating suicide. “I am” is the shortest complete sentence in the English language (complete subject and verb with complete sense: I exist). But it sure is boring.
[Just a quick note about To Be verbs: in the progressive tense (adding the participle –ing), To Be verbs are helping verbs. Therefore, “He was going” and “She is singing” do not really count since they are determining tense and not just “existing”.]
To Be verbs lead to two different faults, and both faults are interrelated. First, To Be leads to the passive voice. This means that, grammatically, the subject of the sentence (the noun that should be doing the action) is not doing the action. Bad.
Example: Bob was given a gift by Ted.
Bob is the subject in this sentence, but Bob isn’t really doing anything. Ted does the action.
Possible Solution: Ted gave Bob a gift.
The subject here – Ted – does the action. This change makes the writing stronger by providing action and eliminating needless prepositional phrases. Moreover, bad passive voice can lead to doubling up.
Example: This paragraph is the one that is second in the examples.
Two To Be verbs in the same boring sentence? Ouch!
Possible Solution: This paragraph comes second.
Hopefully it’s obvious which one sounds better.
Second – and most importantly – To Be leads to passive characters. This means, literally, that the character is being acted upon and not acting. The worst protagonist a writer can have is a passive one. But mark the difference between static (not changing) characters and passive (boring) characters. Characters don’t have to change. But a character that does nothing wastes the character. All actions have consequences. Whether direct or indirect, everything you have done in your life lead up to this point right now. It’s no different in writing characters.
Passive voice is easy to spot in a single sentence exaggerated for effect. It’s a bit harder to discern, especially when reading about characters and character description. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Passive: John is six feet tall but he doesn’t like to play basketball. He is a tennis player instead. He is a member at a tennis club, and he plays in a non-competitive recreational league, but his friends are pushy and want him to play basketball. John is skeptical about this because he was never very good at basketball as a kid.
Possible Solution: Despite his height, John chose tennis over basketball. He joined a tennis club, seeking a non-competitive recreation league in which to play, but his friends hound him to join their basketball team. They believe, incorrectly, that because of his height John would dominate the game.
The differences are minor, but require the re-working of an entire sentence. Telling the How or the What about a character is just that: Telling. Show what your characters do and your reader will understand who they are. To Be verbs ruin this (and, you may have noticed, lead to the repetition of the other action verbs. In this case, the word “play”).
Can To Be verbs be good? Yes, absolutely. They are unavoidable, and they are not to be shunned. They are great when used as part of a conversational tone (you’ll notice in this and past articles, I use lots of To Be verbs. Whatever my faults in the writing, I’m using them with the intention of conversational tone). Many people speak in passive voice, and few notice that they’re speaking that way. Thus, if you’re trying to create a conversational narrative voice, or you want characters to speak in this way, it works very well. But when it becomes wordy, you’ve got problems. There are also different parts of technical writing and other genres in which passive voice finds a happy home (consider sending this in an email to your boss: "You forgot to attach the document." That's much more accusatory than a passive voice structure like, "No document was attached").
More than anything, if you’re using To Be because you cannot think of another word, you’re just lazy. To Be verbs are a dessert after a healthy meal; they are not the meal. Remember, in your story, characters have to do something.