David Farland’s Writing Tips: The Trouble with “Was”

David Farland’s Writing Tips: The Trouble with “Was”

A new writer recently asked, “I’ve been told to avoid the use of the word “was,” but I frequently see it used in published fiction. So, can you use “was” in certain instances, or should I avoid it as best as I can?”

The truth is that “was” is a perfectly good word and you shouldn’t try to completely remove it from your vocabulary. Still, it tends to be overused.

The first problem of course comes with what we call “passive voice.” Sometimes we use “was” in a direct effort to hide who is responsible for something. For example, years ago I was talking to a young woman in college and found that she had been arrested. I asked, “What did you get arrested for?” She replied, “I got arrested for marijuana being smoked at my house.” So I tried to clarify: “You got arrested for smoking marijuana?”

“No, I got arrested for marijuana being smoked at my house.” I thought about that.  Was she claiming that someone else was smoking at her house, and she was falsely arrested?  I knew her well enough that if she had been smoking pot, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I could practically smell the ganja in her dreadlocks. So I pressed her to be a bit more precise, “Were you smoking marijuana?”

Her face turned red, she hung her head, and she failed to reply.  Finally, she admitted that she had.

What surprised me was that she wouldn’t admit to it in the active voice. (May I suggest that if you can’t look someone in the eye and admit to a crime, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place?)

In any case, if you were writing about a character who refuses to admit what he’d done, using the passive voice as a sort of cowardly way to circumvent a confession would be fine.  Politicians do it all of the time. Yet suppose that you’re describing actions in your tale, and you say. “The three travelers began to break camp. Rigby saddled the horses. The fire was snuffed out.”

Do you see the problem? As a reader, I don’t know who snuffed out that fire. I can’t conjure an image of Rigby or Shorty or Dangerous Dan as they do the deed, because you haven’t let me know who snuffed out the campfire.

So passive voice can be weak, and you as an author may become inured to it. In particular, you’ll see it being over-used in legal documents, government notices, and in technical writing.

The second problem with “was” is that it is often used unnecessarily. As far as the image that is conjured in the reader’s mind, there isn’t much difference between saying “Sheila was singing under the starlight,” and “Sheila sang under the starlight.”  However, the second sentence uses one syllable “sang” instead of three, “was singing.” So in the interest of brevity, usually we try to get rid of the “to be” verb.

Yet I’ve seen new authors who feel that by using “was” along with the “-ing” form of the verb, the reader imagines that the character is in the midst of the act of singing. They may be right.  Unfortunately, such authors might put all of the verbs into the –ing form, and so no action ever really gets any emphasis. So take care when using it.

The third problem with “was” is that it becomes repetitious. Years ago I read a novel that had been nominated for a major award.  I’d heard wonderful things about it.  Unfortunately, as I read chapter three, I reached a paragraph that had more than twenty-five uses of the word “was” in it. You know, things like, “It was a hot day.  The sun was rising, and the temperature was rising with it.  Everyone on Randolph Street was out washing cars in the driveway or mowing lawns. . . .” It got to be a bit much, so I hurled the book across the room and crossed it off my list. Unfortunately for the author, I was one of the judges for the award, and this paragraph cost her first place.

Finally, and perhaps my biggest complaint, is that “was” leads authors to write lazy constructions. If you say, “The wagon was red,” your reader might imagine a typical red child’s wagon. But you can do so much more. You can make the wagon active, create tension through foreshadowing, and so on.

So imagine that you have a scene in which you’ve got a family stranded in a hotel in a Western ghost town. If you decide to get rid of the “was,” you’ll find that you’ve just made your job more difficult. The red wagon, which foreshadows a bloody death, becomes a more potent image. You might say, “The crimson wagon rested in a pool of shadows. In the gloom, wind sighed through the barren streets, a gale that would hardly lift the dead weight of a flag. Yet a wheel creaked; the wagon shuddered, and in one fluid spurt it lurched against the side of the hotel, rapping it with a bang.”

Do you see how much stronger your sentences can be if you put a little more effort into them? There are times when “was” is the perfect verb for a sentence, but more often than not, we use it out of habit, or out of laziness, and one can find much stronger substitutes.

December is still Hollywood month at Apex! We will be having Kevin Beggs, Chairman of the Television Division of Lionsgate Films talking to us on Tuesday, and producer/director Spanky Ward the following week. Join us in Apex! 

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ”

—Joss Whedon

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