That was the day that was … by Nicole Kimberling

Have you ever wondered how it’s possible for two authors to write nearly the same plot, scenes and characters and yet one writer is interesting and the other is dull? Oftentimes, savvy readers need search no further than the verbs.

Let’s try a little experiment.

From The Binky Chronicles Book Nine: Moon Grab:

Brutus was standing in the doorway of Dr. Binky’s office. He was gripping a laser pistol.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Binky asked.

“The goddamn Martians have stolen the moon and all hell is breaking loose.” Brutus walked to the space station port hole window and looked outside. Binky followed behind him and looked over Brutus’ shoulder.

Outside the stars were shining as brightly as ever, but the space where the moon should be was empty.

Binky looked down and saw that his hands were trembling in fear, but he tried his best to keep a calm look on his face when he said, “What are we going to do?”

Are you bored yet? I sure am. And yet how is it possible? Two hot gay guys on a space station are discussing how Martians just stole the moon. The situation and the conversation are inherently interesting, yet it’s almost impossible to read the preceding excerpt without yawning. Through the magic of font color I will now reveal the answer:

Brutus was standing in the doorway of Dr. Binky’s office. He was gripping a laser pistol.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Binky asked.

Nicole Binky 3“The goddamn Martians have stolen the moon and all hell is breaking loose.” Brutus walked to the space station port hole window and looked outside. Binky followed behind him and looked over Brutus’ shoulder.

Outside the stars were shining as brightly as ever, but the space where the moon should be was empty.

Binky looked down and saw that his hands were trembling in fear, but he tried his best to keep a calm look on his face when he said, “What are we going to do?”

Was, it’s cousin were and their dreadful companion, look have sapped the life from the previous passage. But how have these three words—two words really if you realize that was and were are actually the same verb “to be”—managed to render boring a case of lunar larceny?

It’s their neutrality. These verbs “to be” and “to look” are nearly free of connotative meaning or broader implication. Hence the dry style of police reports, “The suspect was driving 20 miles over the speed limit,” instead of “The suspect handled his car with the reckless abandon of a man who knows he’s going to jail for life this time.”

“Was” is also distancing. For that reason it’s often rightly used by people who are trying to avoid assigning blame or to withhold information or to drain the drama from a horrendous event.

Consider, for example, the difference between, “Shelly ordered me to take out the garbage,” and “I was told to take out the garbage.”

Or, “I was stabbed three times in the upper torso,” versus, “My attacker thrust his knife into my chest three times.”

The other culprit, “to look” shows up when an author is trying to be tight inside a character’s POV without defining the character’s thoughts or motivations.

Observe the difference between, “Clifton examined the grenade in his hands,” and “Clifton looked at the grenade in his hands.”

Using the word “examine” immediately tells us something about Clifton’s character—that he will investigate an object. Whereas all we know about Clifton from his pallid grenade-looking is that he is not blind.

Not to mention the massive difference between sentences like, “Binky looked at Brutus,” and “Binky glowered at Brutus.”

Replacing “was” and “look” with more dynamic verbs helps a writer infuse information into every sentence. So let’s try The Binky Chronicles again:

Brutus sagged in the doorway of Dr. Binky’s office. He gripped a laser pistol.Nicole Biny 4

“What’s wrong, baby?” Binky asked.

“The goddamn Martians have stolen the moon and all hell is breaking loose.” Brutus walked to the space station port hole window and glared outside. Binky followed behind him and peered over Brutus’ shoulder.

Outside the stars shone as brightly as ever, but the space where the moon should have been gaped empty.

Binky’s hands trembled, but he tried his best to keep a calm expression on his face when he said, “What are we going to do?”

I encourage all writers try the experiment of doing a search/replace with the words “was,” “were” and “look.” Turn them all red. Then go through your manuscript again and try to remove as much red text as possible without becoming convoluted. Usually I aim for one or two red words per page.

Just as a disclaimer—I didn’t come up with this red text thing myself. I learned it from my first editor. When I submitted my first novel, Turnskin, this was the first and most important action my editor took. I had 1082 instances of the word “was” in 259 pages. That’s 4.17 red words per page where I should have had, at most, 1.5. Finding a way to ferret out “was” challenged me, but ultimately made the whole MS stronger.

Got any quick and easy tips to improve prose on a sentence level? Comment and let me know!

 

 

12 comments

  • Great post. Every writer should read this. One word that I personally can’t get enough of is “said.” He said — she said. When writers get creative too often and write, “she announced” or “she contradicted” or “she something else” it always stops me cold. Stick with “said” and the reader doesn’t even see it. “That’s my take on it anyway,” he said. And you’re right. Jazzing up your verbs is a great way to give your manuscript spark. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
      • I totally agree, which is why it was such a headdesk-moment recently when a writer-aquaintance posted very proudly that she’d done a search&replace on her manuscript and exchanged about 98% of the instances where she’d used ‘say’ with other verbs.

        I was: “Why? Why would you do that? Put them back!!”

        I couldn’t undersand it. Still can’t.

        Reply
        • Oh noes! You know I’m totally not against the occasional,

          “I’ve done a study and discovered that, statistically, you’re the world’s biggest asshole,” Binky informed him.

          But once people start eliminating “said” the characters start to seem overblown and melodramatic. What’s worse is replacing all attributions with beats–especially beats containing an action. It starts sounding like stage directions. Very distracting.

          “I think I’m on fire.” Binky stood and observed the smoke rising from his pants.
          “Are you really?” Brutus scratched his head.
          “I sure am.” Binky rushed toward the fire extinguisher.

          Reply
  • Great post, Nicole! Some of the words you’ve pointed out are on my search and destroy list (the folks I beta for will tell you about my “look” phobia). I usually include “walk” on the list too. I find that “dashed”, “hurried”, “ambled”, etc, get more mileage and help set mood and tone. Since I have a character with a bad leg, having him limp or shuffle serves as a reminder of why he’s not running from the bad guy — because he can’t.

    I work very hard to avoid “that” but they multiply like plot bunnies. Sigh.

    Reply
    • Hi Eden, good to see you!

      It’s funny you shout mention “walk” I was just re-reading the post and thought, “I should have replaced that with strode.” 😀

      Reply
  • Who knew that verbs were so powerful? 🙂 Most of us use them indiscriminately whether or not we’re writers, and seeing them in the examples you gave made me re-think my puny writing efforts. 😆 Thanks for this Nicole. You always give us so much to think about.

    Reply
    • Hey Wave! Oh, your writing efforts are not so puny. Your red word ratio is just fine, so far as I can tell.

      Reply
  • Searching for ‘that’ and removing a ton of them helps too. ‘I knew that she hated lettuce’ can become ‘I knew she hated lettuce.’ You can’t take out all of them (I usually take out too many and my editor gently adds a few back in) but it’s a filler word. Knew that, sensed that, thought that, believed that…mostly you don’t need the ‘that’.

    Reply
    • Hi Jane, thanks for the tip! I actually tend to be a “that” offender. I think it’s because I hear words spoken in my head and then write them down. The word “that” is much more necessary in spoken conversation than written, because it provides a word the speaker can either pause on or emphasize. In the narrative part of prose, though it has the tendency to dilute.

      Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: