‘WAS’ is a four-letter word… or is it?

According to Michael Hauge, the job of the filmmaker is to elicit emotion in the audience. That responsibility holds equally true for the fiction writer. Our readers want to share in our characters’ journeys, experiencing in a visceral way their joy and despair, fear and courage, trust and betrayal etc.

As writers, we’re told the most effective way to do this is to ‘show’ our stories rather than ‘tell’ them. A simple technique to ‘show’ is to use active, rather than passive, voice.

Passive voice – telling – holds the reader at arm’s length, and merely informs.

Active voice – showing –  engages the reader, eliciting emotion in both reader and character.

One of the biggest culprits of passive voice?


It might only be a three letter word, but the writer must treat it with the same respect as its four-letter cousin.  Rely on was too frequently and your writing will lose its power.

The Argument AGAINST ‘was’:

Take this simple phrase:  He was walking.  ‘Was’ plus an —-ing verb is as passive as it gets, and is on the ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ self-editing checklist for many publishing companies.  It’s boring and very rarely elicits emotion in either character or reader.

He walked – is a little better, but it still doesn’t tell the reader much.

Now try these for size. He strode. He strolled. He sauntered. He paced. He plodded. He shuffled. He waddled. He marched. He meandered. He slogged.

As a reader, can’t you now see a picture in your head of how – exactly – the character ‘was walking’? Doesn’t that image suggest the emotion the character is feeling? And now don’t you want to use that other three-letter-word ‘Why?’ to ask why the character is feeling that way?

Get your reader to ask ‘Why?’ and you’ve engaged him. You’ve elicited an emotion – at the very least, one of curiosity. And curiosity is good, because it makes the reader ask, “What happens next?” and turn the page to find out!

The Argument FOR ‘was’:

It’s often suggested that during our final edit, we plug was into our search option and eliminate its every use.  That’s a great idea, but do remember that ‘was’ does – sometimes – have a place in our stories.


In character dialogue, especially when he or she is passing on information. ” You know, she was telling me the other day…”  “I heard she was going into the army.” “There was a sale at the shops downtown.”

And there is an argument to be made that too much showing can adversely affect the pace of a story. Think about the phrasing or pacing of a song. If the singer sings each word, each phrase, at the same volume and with the same intensity, it’s boring and turns the listener off. You need the quiet moments, the loud moments, the fast and the slow to give variety, interest and hold the listener’s attention. That’s one of the roles of ‘was‘ in your book. Sometimes you just need that moment where you want to slip in a fact or piece of incidental information without making a big deal of it.

Ah, but what about the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities? I hear you ask.  In his famous opening line, It was the best of times, it was the worst of timesDickens uses the word ‘was’ ten times.  That’s right, ten times!

As always, whenever there’s a rule, it can be broken. But it’s not something I suggest you try to emulate. Dickens’ effectiveness has everything to do with the poetic nature of his introduction and the fact that he was a genius. That’s not the case for most of us.

So how many times is it okay to use ‘was‘ in your story. Is there a ‘magic’ number?

Check out the  links below and see how these best-selling authors deal with this simple three letter word.

(Disclaimer:  I’ve taken all these examples from the internet and am assuming they are genuine and error free.)

Hunger Games/Suzanne Collins:

Chap One:      5,187 words           was x22

Twilight/Stephanie Meyer:

Chap One:       6,783words         was x195

Harry Potter/JK Rowling:

Chap One:      4588 words             was x92

Chap Five:      6,579 words            was x92

Chap 13:        3,189  words             was x49

Chap 16:        6,432 words              was x75

Pride and Prejudice/Jane Austen:

Chap One:      847 words                was x8

Chap Two:      796 words                 was x1

Sherlock Holmes/Study in Scarlet/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Chap One:      2,771                          was x28

Carnal Innocence/Nora Roberts:

Prologue:        1,539                         was x31

Chap One:      6,917                          was x118