Writing and style

Death by Past Perfect

Death by Past Perfect

I recently read a good short story, "Dry Whiskey" by David B. Silva (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, ed. Ed McBain). The story builds unassumingly to a subtly powerful ending. However, the author struggles with the use of past perfect tense, enough so that it interferes with a smooth reading experience.

Past perfect tense is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with a verb's past participle (had written, for example).

Avoid “It Was” and “There Was” Constructions

I blissfully enjoyed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. However, one of the first style quirks that jumped out at me was Rothfuss’s reliance on the constructions it was and there was (and it is, there were, etc.), as in “It was night again.” Out of the prologue and first twenty-one chapters, seven begin with It was. Rothfuss is a talented writer; he’s capable of chapter beginnings like this: “Chronicler walked. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good.” The It was beginnings stick out like seven sore thumbs.


Know what a verb is? Let’s review anyway. A verb is a word that expresses action (example: expresses) or a state of being (example: is).

Of course, it's not always that simple. For example, which is the verb in the following sentence? Talking makes me tired. It would be easy to mistake the noun form of talk (talking) for a verb.

A friend who minored in linguistics and is an English professor taught me this clever trick for identifying verbs in a sentence. All you have to do is change the day on which the sentence happens, which forces the verb tense to change.

Yesterday, talking made me tired. Today, talking makes me tired. Tomorrow, talking will make me tired.

By changing whether the sentence happens in the past, present, or future, you make it impossible for the verb to hide. The word that changes form is the verb.

Cool, huh?

When I was in grade school, I learned Latin from a textbook that began by teaching verbs. Because Latin verbs contain information about the person who is doing or being, they can stand on their own as tiny sentences, thus making them ideal for beginner Latin exercises. For example, the first-person singular form of the Latin verb for love (amo) literally means I love; the English verb love means only love.

Amo. (Yay! It's a sentence!)  Love. (Sorry, that's just a word with a period after it.)

Amo. (Yay! It's a sentence!)

Love. (Sorry, that's just a word with a period after it.)

Ever since finding out that verbs can stand alone as powerful, one-word sentences, I have seen them as special. While we may learn nouns more easily than verbs when we are infants, I believe verbs are a more fundamental part of speech.

Verbs reflect a primary reality about humanity and the universe: everything is in motion. All things are acting or reacting, moving, pushing, jostling, flattening, growing, changing, shrinking, disappearing, being born. Stories are about this primary reality. Stories are about things that happen.

Good writing and good storytelling mean using verbs to express motion, not to fill in a static picture.

One way to choose expressive verbs is to prefer action verbs over state of being verbs. Compare these two sentences:

It was a hot day, with a high of 95.  She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare as she read the thermometer: 95 degrees.

It was a hot day, with a high of 95.

She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare as she read the thermometer: 95 degrees.

By searching around for some action verbs to write with, I came up with a more interesting sentence. As an editor, I’ve noticed that when writers are relying on state of being verbs, they usually haven’t clearly visualized their story.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ever use state of being verbs. I’ve used plenty of them throughout this blog entry. They balance the intensity of action verbs. Some ideas can only be communicated with state of being verbs.

But aim to use action verbs. Your style will automatically improve.