I have great fun with the search-and-destroy function in my computer. When things get slow, I might go through a manuscript and change all the instances of “smile” and “grin” to “poodle.” This results in sentences like “He poodled over his shoulder at her” or “She threw the crowd a poodle.”
Okay, maybe I need a life, but it demonstrates one of the better tools writers have at their disposal these days: a quick way to root out bad habits. A particular one, in fact. I’m talking about “there is” and “there are.”
The introductory phrase “there is” brings your sentence to a grinding halt. Nine times out of ten you can dump it, and you should.
Many constructions with “there is” follow the pattern “There is a (noun) + (a progressive verb) + (place).” as in “There was a woman standing on the street” or “There is a gunman shooting inside the bank.” The opening phrase “there is” really blunts the impact of the sentence. In the second example sentence, we have three words before we get to the interesting subject “gunman” and the really interesting verb “shooting.” And why? So we can have a bunch of unnecessary words up front?
SOLUTION: Move the subject to where it belongs–at the beginning. Then make the subject do something with that action verb: “A woman stood on the street.” Better yet: “A woman tapped her foot impatiently on the street.” For the second example, try “A gunman is shooting inside the bank.” Even better: “A gunman shot up the bank.”
Other “there is” constructions merely point out something exists: “There is a test tomorrow.” “There’s a gas station on the corner.” “There’s a spider in my cookie.” Boring, boring, boring! Sure, people talk this, but in a novel, we want our characters to sound a little more interesting.
SOLUTION: Dump “there is” and rephrase. “We have a test tomorrow,” or “I’m giving a test tomorrow.” “That gas station looks open.” “Pull into that gas station.” “I found a spider in my cookie!”
Use the search-and-destroy (okay, okay–search-and-replace) to find all the uses of “there is” and “there are” in your manuscript and see how many you can rephrase. It’ll streamline your writing.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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