An editor shares her thirty years of editing and writing experience to explain why many of the writing tips and tricks you’ve heard about are effective tools so that you can fully understand where the power lies in that writing tool and leverage it to its fullest.
There are writing lectures in my brain. Push one of my buttons, and there is a lecture ready to pop out. There is the one on sentence structure reflecting story content, the one on verbs as engines, and the one on light verbs. Then there is the one on there is.
There is? you ask. What’s wrong with there is? Everybody uses it. You wouldn’t be alone in making this observation. In one of my writers groups a long time ago I got into a heated debate with another member. We sat opposite each other at a big round table and argued across the poor author who wrote the words there were in her story without the faintest hint of what would rain down upon her. Poor woman.
So what are my objections to starting a sentence (or phrase or clause) with the words there is or with there followed by any to be verb? As an editor, I am constantly looking at sentence structure, not just content. A sentence has three positions of power: the subject, the verb, and sometimes the end. Use there is to start a sentence, and you have given up the most powerful positions in your sentence to two words that have no meaning in and of themselves. In most sentences, the subject is a marker on the map of where your reader is and the verb is the path they take on your map. It may not contain the end point, or it can. So consider
I went to the store
The subject (I) and the verb (went) establish in your mind an actor for the whole sentence (called an agent in grammar—the agent and subject are often but not always the same) and the beginning of understanding for where the sentence is going. I went establishes an agent, an action, and narrows down the possibilities for the end of the sentence. Readers have an expectation of what they will find there, which makes reading easier and smoother. There is delays the passing of information to the reader until after the verb. A clear and strong subject and verb are signposts. For examples, let’s finish some sentences that start with there are.
There are 100 angels dancing on the head of a pin.
There are great chocolates in that store.
There are two serial killers outside your door.
See how there are does not narrow down the options that follow the verb? Also consider the delay: if there are two serial killers outside your door…don’t you want that info up front as fast as it can be imparted?
Two serial killers are at your door!
In other words, get to the point.
Using there is can also be the sign of lazy writing. For instance, you might be going into your scene and just putting a sign post there and there and there.
There was an assassin somewhere in the party.
Somewhere in the party, an assassin lurked.
In this there was sentence, the writer doesn’t take the time to find a good verb, and the sentence and reader engagement suffer for it. The second sentence conveys tone and tension more than the first. In fact, there is might be blocking some of your creativity. You might be using it as a placeholder.
There was a dining set with six chairs and a large oak table sitting right behind the door.
Now take a moment to imagine it and set a scene, not give directions for staging a play:
She tried to enter the room, but the door banged into an old dining set. She slid in sideways and pushed the bulky chair back up against a huge table black with age. Edwardian, she thought, long, heavy with ornate carvings, a 100 years past fashionable, like everything else in the dusky, faded room.
Take a look at your uses of there is/are/was/were, and ask yourself why you used it in that spot in your writing. Did you need it? Or was it a placeholder for your scene while you were focused on the main story points? In answering these questions, you might find more vivid imaginings to shape for you reader.
Don’t get me wrong, There is has its uses. Day-to-day dialog is chocked full of it. People talk that way in real life, so why wouldn’t your characters? It sounds very natural to us.
Sometimes, rewriting there is sentences just gets downright ugly. The simplicity of there is can sometimes be better. It’s not a grammatical mistake, so I sometimes let it slide when doing otherwise just produces a tortured sentence.
One more case can be made for using there is. Do you remember above when I said a sentence has three positions of power? Sometimes the end is the point where the punch needs to be. Consider this example from my novel, In a Mortal Shadow. In their youth, Hethew and Falion (the protagonist) were friends. When Hethew came into his Terael (or his magic), he found he could not bear to be around the half-Blood Falion, who suddenly felt different from all other people to Hethew. Now they are grown, and Hethew tells Falion why.
“And then there was you. In the midst of this maelstrom of life and emotion and feeling everything, you were like, like—” Hethew faltered. Falion wasn’t sure he wanted him to go on, yet he couldn’t turn away or interrupt, part of him wanted to hear the end of that sentence. The two of them locked eyes and Hethew managed to find the words to finish. “You are an absence in the middle of all that life. When you were around, I felt the shadow of death hovering over me.”
By stripping the subject and verb of meaning and thus of their power, you imbue the end of your sentence with greater significance. In essence you shine a spotlight on the end. In the above example, And then there was you, it shines on the word, you, which is what the whole paragraph is about. I focused that big old spotlight on Falion. The sentence funnels the attention all onto him. It is part of establishing an uncomfortable place for him to be in.
Writing is about learning rules and then bending them to your will and purpose. I don’t suggest you throw out any tool in your box, but remember to learn them and use them appropriately. Some, like there is, need to be applied sparingly to reach the greatest effect. So I suggest you do a search for the words there were/was in your writing. As an exercise, try replacing them. Rewrite a bunch then contrast the original to the rewrite. Some won’t be better, but many will. So with all this in mind, let’s try that first paragraph again, shall we?
I lie awake nights with thoughts about writing gnawing at my brain. In thirty years of editing and writing, I’ve learned a lot. Push one of my hot buttons, and a lecture might just pop out. You might get an earful on how sentence structure should reflect story events, or how verbs are like engines to your sentences. Or you might learn more than you wanted to about light verbs. But one writing lecture I give across the board from engineers to fantasy writers: my lecture on there is…