To Be or Not To Be

One of the most over-worked verbs in the English language is … well, “is.” The “to be” forms show up all over the place. We think in terms of present existence.

The problem with this simple, much used verb is that when it gets used in narrative pieces, it tosses the prose into a more passive voice. When we say “X is Y,” it captures a static moment, not one in motion or reeking with passion.

In non-fiction prose, “is” runs rampant. In narrative fiction, the narrative post tense, “was,” sweeps its way into every corner.

Why do writers so easily fall into the use of the “to be” forms?

Part of it comes from the way we think when we want to explain things. To do that we have to hold things in a static state. And that tends to show up in our word selection as we describe things. It is so easy to say “Things are so,” or “It was thus.”

Writers need to be aware that this happens, and accept that it comes naturally to us. The thing we writers should keep in mind is that once we have the first draft down, we can freshen up the words to make them more active.

If we are to make the most of the “to be” verbs, we need to treat them as very valuable, instead of being as common as dirt. We should work to keep the “to be” verbs focused on descriptions of actual identity instead of just “states of being.” By that, I mean the difference between saying “the sun is rising” and “the sun rises” should be something of which we are always aware.

By statements of identity, I mean where you want to declare that one thing really does equal another. There are occasions when such statements are very important, either in a non-fiction piece or a fictive one. But if we have been using “to be” verbs all over the place, who will notice the important occasion?

Mind you, because we do use the “to be” forms naturally, I don’t think any writer should be concerned if they find it scattered throughout the first draft of the work.  But I do feel that after that point, once the time for review and revision arrives, the object should be to remove as many of the unnecessary “to be” uses.

Of course, I could go back through this post itself to take out the unnecessary “to be” uses. But I won’t, because I want to show how easy it is to fall into using them. But in general, take out the static, frozen uses and select more active verbs.

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Evergreen Writing

I went to see Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s worth seeing, even if you think you would not be into Shakespeare. But I’m not writing this as a review of the movie. Instead, I want to pursue a lone of thought the film inspired.

Even though the play is about five hundred years old, there is something timeless about the story it tells. Love, misunderstandings, fidelity, these matters persist as part of human nature. Whedon set his production of Shakespeare’s play in modern times, and it works. Human nature does not change so much that a transplantation of setting wounds the emotional impact of the story.

The secret to this durability, of course, is that Shakespeare wrote about what is primal to human nature — our relationships.

Setting in time and space may affect our initial perception of a tale. Whedon’s version is set in a modern, urban landscape of wealth and power.


Branaugh’s is set in a pseudo-early 1800s, apparently.

Branagh Ado 2

The Joseph Papp stage production in the early 1970s looks Victorian.

Papp Much Ado

And yet the story continues to have a similar impact on the audience.

So, how do writers achieve that sort of effect?

Blake Snyder used to urge writers to keep their stories “primal.” By that he meant that stories should be driven by basic human emotions first and foremost. Emotions are the first thing we bring into a story.

You may have a cool idea for a science fiction story set in some fantastical future. But if the story does not touch out basic emotional responses, the story will be an emotionally cool (as in “chilled”) one.

It is possible to combine “idea” driven stories, filled with intellectual concepts and yet be filled with emotional drives.

gattaca 2

In Gattaca, we get a very “idea” story: a future world structured around manipulation of human genetics. It is so structured thusly that society has become divided between the “designed” upperclass and a disregarded, inferior “naturally conceived” underclass. this story could be cold and remote (it’s very style certainly seems so), but it is in fact driven by human passion. The main character, a product of a natural conception, wants to go into space, which happens to be a profession limited exclusively to the genetically designed. But going into space is something Our Hero wants to do more than anything. So he pushes himself, drives himself, far beyond the limits of what he is “supposed” to be capable of. By contrast the genetically designed characters turn out to be far too accepting of their designed boundaries. As humans, we respond to the drive to reach beyond limits. for generations, we have responded to strivers and dreamers and the call to be “something more.”

Human nature. Basic emotions. Being primal.

As storytellers, if we want our tales to have that durability, that evergreen quality, we need to be sure that the emotions of our stories hit those marks.

Write from your own passions. You are sure to share those passions with others. Ring the bell deeply, ring it true to your own emotions and it will likely hit the same strong, sure note with others, both now and in the future.

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Be a New Element

Ray Bradbury’s insights on being a writer —


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Acknowledging Influences

Lately, I’ve been making a leisurely read of Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, he mentions many of the things that influenced him, that fed his imagination. It made me think of how many writers shy away from acknowledging all their influences. Perhaps it springs from a desire to avoid having their critics claiming they are compying the Influencer. Perhaps it is a fear of being unworthy or of having fallen into copying the earlier writer. Such concerns usually come from being insecure about one’s own voice as a writer.

I have had no problem acknowledging two major influences on myself: Shakespeare and Tolkien. When I was a child, I had an illustrated storybook of stories from Shakespeare and the stories captured my attention. Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It. The storybook led me to an interest in the plays themselves. Hamlet came to take the top of the list of favorite plays.

The effect of Shakespeare on me lay in the Bard’s ability to make poetry conversational. By the time I was in college, I had come to admire the flow of his wording and his coining of word usage. In ninth grade, I encountered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and fell under the enchantment of both his storytelling and his command of language. His prose seemed deceptively simple and plain, and yet he managed to conjure very vivid characters and settings.

These two writers became the models I wanted to emulate. I wanted my own work to strive for that quality. Whether or not it achieves that stature, I probably will not know. But it’s more important to have that desire.

Occasionally, I also mention the poet Keats as an influence on myself. And certainly other writers have contributed to shaping me as a writer — Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance. After my first encounter with his Sherlock Holmes, I was moved to write my first story. The motion and adventure in the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs also fed my imagination.

But in reading Bradbury’s book of essays on writing, I’ve been reminded of something else.

In junior high school, before I read Tolkien, I had a profound encounter with the work of Ray Bradbury. I read his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I suspect I had read others of his works before that point, but not enough to resonate deeply. But the day I saw the title on the library shelf it spoke to me. Firstly, there was the title, pulled from the lines of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I took it off the shelf.

Inside the covers, an eerie story unfolded in the most lyrical language. It sang to me songs of crisp October nights, filled with flying, crunchy dead leaves and silver moonlight shining on midnight shapes.

I had fallen into Bradbury magic.

And it stayed with me.

However, oddly enough, I did not go out and ravenously consume everything Bradbury. Instead I moved on with my reading, absorbing other writers.

But lately, in considering my own writing, I’ve come to realize the profound effect Bradbury has had on my style. For I too like to wax poetical at times, and it is not just because of Shakespeare and Keats.

One of the things Bradbury talks about in Zen in the Art of Writing is realizing the power of our influences. Just because they exist, that does not mean we are copying them. For we absorb these things into our hearts and souls, and when we breathe them out again, they are transformed by our own experiences and additional influences.

Acknowledging the things that influence us is not about making an evaluation of their objective quality as art. It is simply acknowledging that this thing resonated true and clear to yourself at a key time in the development of the artist or writer that you are becoming. Celebrate those things, no matter how silly or unlikely they may seem to others. It’s not about them: it’s about you and what inspired you.

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The Difference Between Construction and Creation

I was looking for quotations earlier today. Nothing specific, just ideas that could inspire me, since I was in need of some inspiration myself. In doing so, I ran across the following quotation from G.K. Chesterton —


It highlighted for me something that I have occasionally struggled with creatively, but something I had not been able to define before now.

There really is a difference between construction and creation.

I’ve written many things that were easy to put together, but which did not touch me personally. I could dash off a short story that might have amused me, but it — in a sense — had no heart. It was put together entirely to suit some specific purpose.

In short, I did not love it before it existed.

But those works of art (whether visual or verbal) that burned themselves into my heart before I ever made the first move to given them a manifest form, those have always been much more “alive” in their final result. They were loved before they were even “born.”

I want to remember this distinction. It will inspire me to take more time at the beginning when I start developing a new idea, especially if it is something intended for the marketplace. I need to love my creations from the beginning in order to give them their best form. That means, knowing them more fully that just choosing pieces to put on the game board.

It’s very easy to construct pieces of entertainment: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, this element is popular with audiences right now, that element hasn’t been seen in a long time so it will feel fresh. That’s constructing something. And unfortunately, more often than not, the seams in such works do show.

So I guess that is the advice for myself and others — don’t just construct your works, create them. Love them from their very first conception.

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