Language that slows down a story

Road sign that says "Slow down"Now, don’t get me wrong. This is NaNoWriMo, after all, and if your priority for these thirty days is bulking up the word count—these are the words you need. It’s not that you want to slow your story down…not slow down, as such…but you want to take a rather longer time than usual to say things. You know, that old “don’t say in one word what you can say in four words” strategy.

But you might also want to try to write a good story that moves along briskly (you only have thirty days to get it done!), meaning that you may not actually want to slow things down. It’s a fine line. If you can somehow write a good story with great language that is beautifully expressive but does not waste time getting the story told while simultaneously building up to that magical fifty thousand word count, that’s the best of all possible worlds. So here are some ideas about language to avoid if you don’t want your story to drag.

(By the way, though, if you do need to pile up superfluous words to reach your word count, remember that you can always edit them out later. So these can just be tips for your post-NaNo editing, if you like. It’s good, either way.)

“TO BE” IN VARIOUS COMBINATIONS

Actor playing Hamlet

“To be or not” — sorry, wrong soliloquy

What the heading refers to is various forms of the verb “to be,” used in combination with a word such as “there” or in verb phrases where they don’t really need to be. Think of phrases that sometimes introduce sentences: “There was a…” or “There is a…” or “There were…” Think also of the way one sometimes describes actions with phrases like, “I was walking” or “She was looking.” Those are “draggy” phrases, and I’ll give you some examples to demonstrate what I mean.

You might start a sentence by saying, “There was a glass sitting on the nearby table.” You plowed through three words before you got to the important word in the sentence, the subject of the sentence, “glass.” You do need the article “a” in front of it (so the reader is aware that it’s some old glass in general, but it’s not one specific glass that the reader is supposed to know about, in which case you would use “the”), but do you need “there was?” No. Try this sentence instead: “A glass sat on the nearby table.” As you read this sentence, you got to the glass right away. Despite being an inanimate object, the glass still seems more active; you don’t have that introductory “there was” phrase to get through before you find out exactly what the phrase is trying to point out to you. You immediately see the subject of the sentence, the actor of the sentence, without that tiny waiting period: “A glass!” There it is.

You also instantly know what this actor was up to. “A glass sat.” Pow! Three words, and you’ve got the actor and the action immediately. And you’ll notice that if you use a phrase like “there was” to introduce the subject of the sentence, it virtually always results in a kind of “draggy” verb describing the action: “There was a glass sitting.” It’s true that you do need the “ing” forms of verbs if it’s really important to show the reader that a particular action has been going on for a while or may be going on for a while more. But you’d be surprised how often you can change a verb like “was sitting” to “sat” and not lose anything—except the sense that the action is kind of dragging.

If you wanted to retain “There was” but still use “sat” instead of “sitting,” you would not fix anything. In fact, you’d find that you have to add yet another word: “There was a glass that [or which, in the UK and Australia] sat on the nearby table.” My goodness—with this “improvement,” one is almost asleep by the time one gets to the table. Far from making the action more immediate, you’ve just made the sentence even longer. Compare that sentence to the vastly more active, instant one: “A glass sat on the nearby table.”

Whenever you can get rid of an unnecessary “there was” phrase and change to a more active verb, you will immediately inject more life into what you write. This applies to other “was/to be” phrases where people are doing the actions. Rather than saying, “I was walking in the hall” say things like, “I walked in the hall.”

A wine glass on a bar surface in a disco

“A glass sat on the bar”

LESS ACTIVE VERBS IN GENERAL

As mentioned above, those “ing” verbs can be a real drag on the action. If you can use “I walked” rather than “I was walking,” you’ll almost always improve the sentence. You only really need those “ing” verbs for ongoing actions: “It was raining all day.” Or if some actions intrude on others (that is, if they aren’t just two separate actions that happen one after the other), you need a way to distinguish them: “I was singing a song when the bomb exploded.”

But you may also be familiar with the issue of active verbs versus passive verbs. Compare, “The book was quickly read by Andy” with “Andy quickly read the book.” (We won’t get into the discussion, right now, of whether you even need the adverb, “quickly,” in the sentence.) In the first sentence, even though “the book” is technically the subject of the sentence, it’s not really the thing that is performing the action. It’s a thing that’s having an action performed upon it. And by whom or by what? We don’t actually find that out until the very last word of the sentence—the seventh word.

But in the second sentence, “Andy quickly read the book,” the person doing the reading is visible at the first word. And Andy is performing the action directly onto the book. No more indirectness here. Andy acts on the book. Sure, the book is still the thing that’s having something done to it, but this time, the action is much more instant and out in the open.

Book open on a table with a lamp beside itIn the sentence, “Andy reads the book,” the verb “reads” is considered an active verb. In the sentence, “The book was read by Andy,” the verb “was read” is considered a passive verb. Passive verbs can really slow down the writing. And look at the little word that had to be tacked onto “read” to turn it into a less active, more passive—more draggy—sort of action? There it is again, one of the forms of the verb, “to be!” Sneaky little devils, aren’t they? Sure, we need to know that something is, that it exists. But we want to know that it’s active too.

Here’s an exception, though, when you might want to use a more passive verb. Take the sentence, “Becky was talked to by her doctor.” You might use a verb construction like that when you want to emphasize that this doctor is doing all the talking and expects Becky just to sit there and take it. Becky is meant to receive the doctor’s speech, soaking it up like a sponge. If you want to convey that sort of situation, passive verbs are handy.

NOUNS THAT COULD BE VERBS

These are really cool, very active situations, and no, I am not talking about the concept of “verbing the noun” that so annoys editors and grammar geeks everywhere. Well…yes, I am, but I am not recommending the most recent “verbings” like, “I like gifting my friends.” (Hear my teeth grinding?) I am talking about nouns that have more commonly accepted verb forms. “Gifting” may get there eventually. But a word like, say, “snake” is years ahead of it and can be used in a way that will not make a reader like me grind their teeth.

Compare two sentences: 1) “There was a jagged crack resembling a snake cutting across the wall” and 2) “A jagged crack snaked across the wall.” Doesn’t the second sentence sound much more alive and active? It gets rid of the dreaded “There was” phrase at the beginning of the sentence, for one thing. But it goes further than that. When you get rid of that initial phrase, you do have a perfectly good subject of the sentence, ready to act: “A jagged crack.” You also now have a more active verb: “cut.”

But you’ve also got a noun that provides both a physical description and some pretty darn dramatic action if you change it to a verb: “A jagged crack snaked across the wall.” The reader doesn’t really need “cut,” because this is a crack we’re talking about, so it’s obviously cutting into the wall. And this crack doesn’t mundanely and even sedately “cut” across the wall—by golly, it “snakes!” We might not really even need the word “jagged,” if we’re really itching to cut words, although it does give more definition to how the crack does its snaking.

But isn’t “snaked” a most excellent and active verb here? If you can make this sort of change now and then, taking a nice descriptive noun and turning it into an accepted verb, you can often really increase the liveliness of your writing. Get that action moving in your story, and do not let it drag!

Jagged crack across a wall

Look at that crack snaking across the wall!

DISTANCING FROM THE ACTION

One sort of sentence positively drives me bonkers. It not only slows the action down, but it actually sets up a barrier between the person or thing involved in the action and the action itself. It happens most often when you’ve got a person in the sentence somehow experiencing or relating to the action.

Have a look at this sentence: “She could feel the tears begin to run down her face.” What’s wrong with that sentence? It has the person almost sitting above herself, observing things that she herself (or her own body) is doing. Why couldn’t that sentence read, instead, “The tears began running down her face”? Those tears are not something that she needs to feel to be aware of—they are running down her face. By golly, she’s crying. She’s not “aware that she is crying”—she’s just doing it.

Whenever you have somebody “feeling themselves” do something or “sensing themselves” do something, all your alarm bells should start clanging in your head. Yes, sometimes a person does occasionally “sense herself slipping into unconsciousness.” But notice that the whole point of that description is that she is, indeed, becoming detached from her own body and its responses, from her own direct feelings. But in the vast majority of cases, the person is not meant to be held at a distance from her own actions or responses. She grieves—she does not “feel herself grieving.” She shivers—she does not “sense her body growing cold.”

The point of all of this is that the more directly you can describe the action in your story, the more active, lively, and vivid it will be. If you can remove “there was” and “to be” sorts of phrases, if you can use active verbs instead of passive ones, and if you can remove barriers between a character and his or her own actions and feelings, your story has a much better chance of leaping vigorously off the page instead of trudging slowly across it, line by heavy line.

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