The human brain sorts its mail via images, so it behooves us to use verbs that carry the weight and smell of an image (was standing is weak beside stood; was climbing weak beside climbed, was about to decide is weak beside decided). We call on simile and metaphor and extended metaphor, but the absolute is even more powerful than these. Absolute detail, as in a Name is a photo in the mind, as a Number is an instamatic shot for the mind. Metaphorical language then and Verb Choice then create style and voice; and if we choose verbs that fire off shots of photographic moments as in SLAMMED, divorced, cuddled, crammed, leapt, jarred, frightened over the weak helping verbs as in the door WAS slammed or about to be slammed, we don’t hear the firing off of the “slam” itself. Nothing really slamming there as it is going to slam or going to be about to slam (see what I mean about politician-speak?) My fellow Americans, the bomb was defused by the heroic soldier, or the door on the Humvee was about to be slammed, or on its way to being slammed…well…they were thinking about maybe getting a divorce, they had sorta been cuddling, was cramming, was about to leap, was feeling a bit frightened—THESE all REDUCE the photo or blur it considerably. We clip ourselves at the knees when we overuse ly-words and qualifiers in which sentence the strong verb is relegated to a murmur somewhere along the line of thought.
Most assuredly helping and passive voice verbs such as was\were SLOW the action and the firing of the photo in the brain of the reader if it gets there at all. Strong female VOICE carries the day in crime fiction with female leads who are SURE not unsure, and who do not qualify unless there is great good reason to do so. The ‘secret’ to creating strong voice, male or female is the same!
There is/was/has been no more insidious word in the English language to insinuate itself on sentences like a parasitic leech than the verb to be, and in particular the word WAS. Take a moment and picture for me a was in your head; next, define the word was in the manner you might define any action/active verb and you cannot. Picture was now in your mind and tell me what you ARE\WAS seeing? Do same for throw/threw/thrown or torch/torched. Jessica bolted from her seat RATHER THAN Jessica was about to maybe stand up as she was sipping her coffee. Meredyth torqued up her language whenever Lucas Stonecoat entered her office. The man engraged her. Enraged is the verb, not was enraged, or was growing angrier by the minute. These examples of action over passivity “fire off” mental imagery and are far more photographic and strong like bull…strong in Voice than is this: Meredyth was (in the process of) thinking about perhaps torquing up her language whenever she was confronted by Lucas’s presence in her office. Lucas, by the same token, was nervously thinking about maybe entering the room. If you wish to write Passively go write speeches for politicians and Supreme Court justices, and others who are trying to save their backsides from their tongues.
Robert W. Walker