BE verbs certainly seem innocent enough. Am, is, are, was, were, been, being and be are efficient, unobtrusive, neat and tiny. They don’t create snags. No one has to look them up in a dictionary. They are standards in the English language, but those little buggers possess dangerous power.
They proclaim laziness, an abundance of passive sentences, and the worst, an amateur status, especially is/was and are/were. They lack sparkle and smother your narrative voice. I know many published writers use BE verbs, and often, but if they’d stretch a little, narration, exposition and First Person drones with lackluster personalities would come alive in new and unexpected ways. Because I am so conscious of them, I find them very distracting in published novels, especially was and were, especially when used 90% of the time. You shouldn’t cave to that bad habit just because others get away with it. Choose to take pride in your craft and make your sentences shine.
It’s amazing what a bit of tweaking can do for your voice. You want your work to possess freshness and zing, not banality. So when you’re at the editing stage, work on nixing as many BE verbs as you can. I don’t trim them all out. I usually let about 20% remain, where they work/flow/fit well. Works without any can feel too heavy and clunky, but go for the much prettier cousins when you can. Use BE verbs where it would cause a trip-up if you didn’t, kind of like when you twist your sentences all around to avoid ending with a preposition and end up transporting your readers back to the 1800’s with your very perfect grammar. If it sounds more natural and easier to read with a BE verb—or a sentence-ending preposition—then choose readability over greatness. You want your story to be told in the clearest, best possible way.
Here are some examples of sentences from which I extracted wases:
He was curious to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks.
He smoldered with curiosity to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks. (“smoldered with curiosity” reflects the POV character’s darker state of mind. “was” dies on the page)
* * *
Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory was a definite managerial perk.
Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory thrilled as a definite managerial perk. (“thrilled” brings in some emotion and characterization)
* * *
Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, were on utility poles.
Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, still garnished utility poles. (“still garnished” sets up my next sentence which explains how long those embellishments stay up.)
* * *
Not all words were clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine.
Not all words came out clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine. (not too much different, but “came out” reflects reception and stimulus now.)
* * *
Do you see how using stronger, punchier verbs, infuses the prose with some pizzazz and life? The content is the same, but they sound better, read better and make the sentences overall more interesting.
Sometimes Be verbs ARE the perfect verbs for a sentence. Weigh each one you come across. If stretching gives you nothing better, let it stand. I kept this was because I felt it held strength:
It was the touching, her slender hand slipping willingly into his large mitt, caressing it with waving fingers, that caught Crystal’s eye and triggered an eruption of sneezes.
* * *
In the same vein, 90% of the time, the combos of There was/were, That was/were are unneeded. Just write in what’s there. (There was a biting chill in the air that I could feel in my bones. v. The biting chill in the air slithered into my bones. Go for straightforward, active sentences, which are always more engaging.) You can use such a combo for effect on occasion, if you want to create a sense of eeriness for instance, but keeping a sentence passive when it could be active is just poor writing.)
Regarding BE verbs, with a little mental acrobatics, you can often come up with a much stronger way to say the same thing. Stretch yourself. Making the extra effort will enhance your prose enormously. Go ahead and use BE verbs as placeholders, but consider many of them to BE on the chopping block, and when the time comes, hack them off without mercy.