Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Controversial "Was"

Do you try to show everything? Do you avoid “was” like the Nile virus? I try to limit it, but too many colorful descriptions and exotic verbs can take you out of the story as quickly as too many dull verbs. (Since most stories are written in past tense, I’m using was instead of is or some other form of the verb to be.)

Was has a place in writing. It’s part of the English language, and to leave it out completely makes for awkward, usually overblown, prose. This has been a recent discussion on a list I belong to. There’s a lot of confusion about it was. It isn’t always passive voice. Passive refers to who performs the action. If Bill threw the ball, Bill, the subject, is performing the action and the sentence is active. If the ball was thrown by Bill, the subject, the ball, is not performing the action and the sentence is passive. In this case the use of “was” is passive. Even passive has a place. I try (but it still creeps in once in a while) to limit passive to the rare occasions when who did it isn’t important to the story. The meeting was postponed until Friday. That’s passive, but what matters is the postponement, not who postponed it.

Another frowned-upon use of was is in telling (instead of showing), when the subject is linked to an adjective. She was tired. You could go into a more lengthy description and show that she was tired, but that’s not always necessary. Showing takes more words, so you have to ask if it’s important to the story or if it slows it down with unnecessary detail. Remember, moderation in all things. I think you should definitely lean toward more showing than telling, but I disagree with Mae West—too much of a good thing is not always wonderful.

But there’s another use of was—progressive tense, when the subject performs an ongoing action. Ellen was crossing the street. This is not passive. Sometimes showing progressive action is the only way to make sense. Ellen was crossing the street when a car hit her. If I say Ellen crossed the street when a car hit her, it gives an entirely different picture.

Here’s a bit from The Peeper where I thought telling worked better.

Julie hung there, her bare ass balanced over his shoulder, her pale hair swinging against the man’s hips. The quick glimpse was enough. Poor Julie. Hot tears ran down Elliott’s cheeks. That image would haunt him forever.

I could have substituted something more colorful for was, but this is in Elliott’s point of view and The quick glimpse sufficed or The quick glimpse satisfied Elliott would sound stilted and unnatural, at least to my ear.

How do you feel about was? Do you think it has a legitimate use in fiction? Do you go to great lengths to avoid it? When do you use it (if you do)? Have any examples you’re willing to share? I’d really like to know your thinking on this.


evleroux said...

Hi Ellis,

I agree with defending the word "was." When I write my short stories I find there are a few sentences that make no sense, at all, if the word has been substituted by another. Therefore, there are exceptions for using that word

Peg Brantley said...

Like Julia Child recommended . . . moderation in all things.

Anonymous said...

I began with, "Claudia was hiding in the old smokehouse in Granddaddy's back yard," and ended with, "I found Claudia hiding in the old smokehouse in Granddaddy's back yard."

It's a small change, but in context, the latter works better, it's more active, and it gets rid of the "was." However, if "was" had been the better choice, I'd have used it.

Ditto Peg and Julia.

Ellis Vidler said...

Kathy, a nice circular story. I agree with your "was." People get carried away with these "rules."
Peg, I wonder if Julia was an Episcopalian--that's where I learned it. It seems to apply to most everything, even dessert.
Eileen (right?), I think it would be very difficult to completely eliminate "was" and have a good flow to your words, at least not over more than a few sentences.

Peg Brantley said...

I'm adoring Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series, and am reading the last entry, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, at the moment.

Tim writes in third person present, a trick in and of itself. Gonna have to study that for the use of "was".

A multi-published author (primarily women's fiction in the CBA market) lamented over her use of "was" in her first published book. I'm sure though, that Deborah Raney hasn't gone to the other exteme. Just more aware.

Ellis Vidler said...

I usually find present tense distracting, but I love Michael Robotham's Suspect. It's also first person, not usually my choice, but it's so well done I hardly noticed it. The Queen of Patpong is on my list after reading the description on the SinC blog.

Peg Brantley said...

Oh, oh, oh . . . begin at the beginning. You will love his characters and they begin with A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. Tim says it's pretty dark, but I loved it. (Hmmm . . . wonder what that says about me?)

I'm about ready to begin downloading his backlist, which features a completely different protagonist. But at this point? I totally trust Hallinan.

Kaye George said...

My goal is to get my reader so wrapped up in my story, she doesn't notice what tense I'm using, and convenient violations of rigid rules go unnoticed.

Until that time, I try to eliminate most of the rigid rule things, but I agree that it's silly to be, well, rigid about them.

Polly said...

I change it when I can make a stronger, more visual sentence by using another verb, but sometimes there is no substitute for was. My pet peeve is HAD more than WAS because it's a trap.

As always, a great post, Ellis.

Ellis Vidler said...

Okay, Peg. Switching to Nail through the Heart first. He has great titles too.
Kaye, when that happens, I'll forgive anything. That's how I felt about Suspect. I didn't notice.
I'm all for making it better, Polly, as long as it really is better. I just don't want to end up with too many exotic words simply to avoid a plainer one.

Anonymous said...

I see this pretty simply. "Was" is an element of one of the language's tenses. No one would argue "eliminate the tense." Still you've got to do the "was search" in the final polishing.

VR Barkowski said...

I'm overly dependent on "was." Fortunately, I write in Scrivener, so it's simple to highlight and obtain a count of all occurrences. I can easily spot where I've grown lazy. That said, I would never think to eliminate "was." It's a perfectly respectable verb when not attached to a gerund or passive sentence.