Stative verbs — the Palmetto Bugs of the Literary Landscape

by Josh Langston

Palmetto bugs. You’ve seen the nasty things: creepy relics of an era predating the dinosaurs and allegedly immune to the effects of radiation. No wonder they seem to flourish everywhere, including our writing! I use the term “palmetto bug” for two reasons: 1) nobody wants to read about roaches, and 2) because these disgusting crawlies have so much in common with what should be a writer’s arch nemesis: stative verbs.

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For my purposes, any form of the verb “to be” is a stative verb. What’s wrong with ’em? Plenty. Laziness tops the list, because writers use them in lieu of real verbs, i.e., verbs that actually do something. Remember the old adage, “Show, don’t tell?” Well, stative verbs tell; real verbs show. It takes time and effort to eradicate them, but if we don’t, they’ll creep into our work just like palmetto bugs: behind the woodwork, up in the cupboards and into the drawer with the silverware. Bleah!

Recast almost any sentence containing a stative verb, and you’ll likely end up with a more interesting one. Do it often enough, and it becomes automatic. A couple examples should make the point:

1- Mary is a beautiful girl who lives in the house next door. –An okay sentence, technically speaking, but decidedly ho-hum.

2- Mary, a beautiful girl, lives in the house next door. –Marginally better, and we nuked the stative verb, but the sentence remains bland and doesn’t do much to advance the story.

3- Sometimes I catch sight of Mary, the beautiful girl next door. –Still better, and we get a hint about the observer. A little more work might actually shift this line into the “keeper” pile.

4- I saw my beautiful neighbor, Mary, seventeen times today. –Now we’re not even thinking about the stupid little stative verb any more. We’ve stumbled onto the start of an actual story!

But I digress. Let’s try another set of examples:

A- The murder weapon was a .38 special, a cop’s gun–the same as Joe’s. He had been carrying it for years. –Notice the dual statives (“was” and “had been”), and while neither would cause a reader hives, neither is especially useful either.

B- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Like Joe’s. His hand fit it like a glove. –Better, but the glove cliche’ gets in the way.

C- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Joe instinctively wrapped his hand around his own. –This calls for the tale to be told in Joe’s point of view, which may or may not be appropriate, but the improved strength of the passage is undeniable. Your use of the adverb “instinctively” is optional. (We’ll address adverbs in a future column.)

See how easy that was? From “Okay” to “Oh, cool” in nothin’ flat.

See for yourself. Go find the last thing you wrote and copy the first 500 words into a separate document. It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction, love stories or letters; statives can–and do–crawl into anything. Take that document and eliminate every last stative verb you can find. All of ’em! Some revisions won’t require anything more drastic than the changes between examples 1 and 2 above. A number of other changes, however, will require more effort. And you know what? That’s a good thing. Don’t be surprised if one of those changes sets your story in a whole new direction.

When you finish, try to honestly evaluate which version does the better job of showing over telling. Which makes for more interesting reading? Many writers will apply this technique to the balance of their piece instead of throwing away what they just revised. The lazy writers won’t take the time to finish the exercise in the first place, but you’ll know their work when you see it crawl by.

So, the next time you get geared up to write something, do it with a can of bug spray handy.