Monday, July 12, 2010

Once Upon a Time, There Were ...

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I recently took a writing course where the very sharp instructor pointed out whenever I used the construction "there were" or "there was." For example, I think my sentence was: "... but there was nobody else he could talk to about this." She challenged me--instead of that empty construction, what could I write instead?

He wished he had someone more reliable to confide in.
Unfortunately, she alone knew his secret.
At least it was safe to talk to her; annoying, but safe.
Man, he needed a better confidant.

"There was" and "there were" are passive clauses. (There, I got all grammar nerd on you and made sure to use "clauses" instead of "phrases.") For years, people told me not to use forms of "to be" if I could avoid it, and I scoffed at them. How stilted would my writing be if I replaced every instance of was or were? "She was trapped forever in the world's most overheated traffic jam." How would substituting "was" in that sentence work better? But now the advice is making more sense.

OK, so what about the classic fairy tale beginning, "Once upon a time, there was a girl named Goldilocks"? That beginning is deliberately vague. What time? What kind of girl? That's hidden information. Sure, I could rewrite Goldilocks. "Last week, a ten-year-old blonde girl with a poor grasp of other people's boundaries wandered through the woods right behind your house." But that's a different story, isn't it? It could just as easily be "In the fifteenth century, a blonde teenager searched the King's forest for food."

So if you're worried there are too many vague phrases in your manuscript ... no, let's start again. Punch up your manuscript by getting rid of "there are."

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages

1 comment:

DeenaML said...

I need to print this out.