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Some More Thoughts on Fiction Writing

Updated: Apr 3

I am thinking of writing a series of posts on why the typical advice fiction writers are given should be rethought, such as no adverbs and no "to be" verbs. Here is the first one. 


"To Be" Verbs in Fiction Writing - Should they stay or should they go?


First of all, they aren’t. It is impossible to write without “to be” verbs.


Identify yourself, or have a character do so, without a “to be” (existence) verb. “I am….”  “My name is….”  Note that these are two different meanings, even though we use them interchangeably, and this point opens a door to a whole other issue—the granularity of language in dialogue and fiction writing in general.  In normal conversation, no one is going to notice is I say “I am Barbara Tucker” or “My name is Barbara Tucker,” but in reality, they are not the same.


How else would you express this? I suppose you could follow Spanish, “I call myself….” (“Me llamo ….”) or similar English versions, “I go by the name of ….” “People call me….” or “You can call me….” and these all have totally distinct meanings.  The first implies it’s an alias (possibly), the second shifts the agency (as if I don’t know who I am but other people apparently do), and the third is a statement of permission (and pretty pompous).  All identify the narrative voice or the character in dialogue as someone who cannot just say their name like normal people!


Try to introduce a character in dialogue or as a narrative voice without an existence verb, also called “linking” verbs, but I don’t think that’s the best use of grammatical term. Linking verbs also apply to “The room smells like wet dog,” or “She looks like her aunt,” as opposed to the active verb use, “The dog smelled the blades of grass where the other dog marked his territory” (something I am very familiar with), or “She looked out the window at the UPS truck.”  But I digress.


Back to existence verbs. The problem with them is not that they are wrong, but they are lazy. (three of them there in one sentence). They do not make the writer work harder, and consequently they do not require the reader to work a little harder to achieve what good fiction should achieve—an engagement with other people who qualify as worthy of engaging with, even if they are not technically “real.”  (I rewrote that sentence from its original to get down to one existence verb. I believe it’s better and meets the criterion about which it speaks).  


Existence verbs are not the enemy, but they are a default. The problem is that just doing a word search in your program to find them and then replacing them with something else is not the best solution, although of course I have done that. I would suggest that during the second draft (second of many) a writer read with an eye toward action and action-based description. “She was sleepy,” is a statement of existence. But why? And how did the narrative voice know? If the narrative voice is third person limited (in one character’s head), how is “she” really feeling? Yawning, moving sluggishly (we’ll address adverbs later), desiring nothing more than to crawl back into bed, unable to focus her eyes….


“She was unable to focus on her work because of getting three hours of sleep…” or “She moved slowly and uncertainly (or “stumbled”) around the room because the dog’s barking kept her up….”  Now we have story, movement, context, and a connection to the reader because almost all of us have had that experience. 


What I am saying is this is a second draft revision, not a fifth draft one. The shift from too many existence verbs and thus too much reliance on blatant, easy statements that assert without “proof,” so to speak, needs to be on the writer’s mind earlier in the process.


At the same time, as in the “My name is…” example, trying to replace every existence verb with some sort of related action verb is going to result in stilted writing, especially in dialogue. 

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