Dragging Action in Fiction. “To Be” Verbs – or Maybe Not

Writers! Have you ever heard someone say they picked up a novel, stuck it out for 30 or 40 pages, and then stopped reading because they just couldn’t get into it or they couldn’t stand the dragging action? Are you worried that this could happen to your book too?

The reason might involve plot (or the lack of one) or characters who just aren’t interesting. But a big reason why readers close a book, never to return, is often that the writing just drags. Even if the story idea is good on paper (so to speak), sometimes the writing itself just doesn’t make it live.

Over the next few posts, we’re going to look at things that can really slow down your story when you write fiction, and we’ll try to help you produce more lively writing. You don’t just need to get your readers’ attention—you need to keep it. And if your writing drags, nothing will make a reader look elsewhere more quickly. So what are some draggy writing habits, and how do we fix them?

“To Be” Verbs

“To be” phrases underpin everything we think and say. They tell us that something exists, and they take forms such as she is, we are, there is, he was, there are, they were, and similar phrases. But important as these phrases may be, these “foundational” verbs about existence can make your writing as boring as that “foundational” slab of floor you walk on. They tell us that things are there, but those things are often not doing much of anything. Or if they do something, the dragging action is muted and lacks liveliness.

Photo of a wine glass sitting on a table

A glass sat on the table!

Look at this sentence: “There was a glass sitting on the table.” The subject of the sentence is obviously “glass,” but did you see how long it took to get to that important word? You had to plow through three other words before the first really important word showed up. And right at the beginning stands that calm, rather dull introductory phrase, “There was…”

There the glass is, all right. Yep.

But what can we do about this lack of life? The glass actually was sitting on the table. You can’t make the action more lively than that, can you?

In fact, you can. First, get to the glass right away. You do need the word “a” in front of it to show that it’s just some general glass, but then you can say, “A glass sat on the table.” Bam! No dragging action here — the glass shows up first thing, without its staid introductory phrase. And the verb is also right there, immediately, in a more active form: sat. “Glass sat,” by golly. Actor plus action, right away!

Let’s demonstrate this subtle switch with some other “to be” verbs and sentences:

  • “She was running down the road” becomes “She ran down the road.”
  • “We were running late for breakfast” might be “We ran late for breakfast.”
  • “There is a proverb that says…” is turned into “One proverb says…”

Note that it’s okay if you don’t make this change because you can’t find another option or because the change sounds more awkward than the original. For example, “There are clean towels in the closet” can’t easily be changed into anything that works better. The phrase “Clean towels are in the closet” is probably all right, but it still uses a “to be” verb (“are”), and the action hasn’t improved much. You could introduce a new verb, more active than a “to be” verb (“Clean towels awaited in the closet,” perhaps). But it’s fine to leave some “to be” sentences as they are.

Just don’t leave them all. Develop the writing habit of finishing something and then polishing and refining it, looking for “to be” types of phrases. You’ll be able to change a lot of them, and your scenes will take on a subtle but genuine new sense of liveliness.

Using “Ing” Verbs

Notice another thing about our first sentence: “There was a glass sitting on the table.” You usually can’t use a “to be” phrase without using a longer verb too — one ending in “ing.” To get into a wee bit of grammar for a moment, that “ing” verb is the present participle form of the verb. This verb form shows action that started before the present moment and continues even as you speak.

This means you don’t just have that somewhat dull introduction (“There was”), but you’re also stuck with a verb form that subtly tells the reader, “The sitting is just going on and on and on…” Has the reader fallen asleep yet??

A photo of a dripping faucet

That faucet just keeps on dripping…

Eliminating that combination —– the “to be” verb plus the “ing” verb —– will often lift your sentence out of its mere stolid being and into a more alert, active state: “There was a glass sitting” versus “A glass sat.” The “sat” almost implies purpose to what the glass is doing. You can almost see it sitting up straight rather than lounging indolently.

Remember, though, that all different types of English words exist for a reason and have their uses. So the “ing” verbs, too, are useful in the right circumstances. Sometimes, in your story, it will be important to let the reader know that an action is ongoing; sometimes that will be the actual point. So in those circumstances, an “ing” verb will be just the word you want. (E.g., “The dripping of the faucet was beginning to drive her mad.” In this sentence, the ongoing “dripping” is exactly the problem. And this situation “was [to be!] beginning [ing!] to drive her mad.” You can feel the madness coming on, slowly…beginning…as that faucet keeps dripping.)

 

So that’s the first writing habit to correct when you check your story for dragging action. Look for those “to be” verbs and “ing” verbs and change them to more active forms. Your scene will become subtly more alive.

Now be sure to check out the second way of making the action in your story more lively and active: Dragging Action in Fiction. Don’t be Passive! Then check out the third way: Dragging Action in Fiction. Verbing a Noun.