Max Griffin's Blog

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Disappointed

Review of Prometheus

I really wanted to like this movie. I've been looking forward to it for months. I wound up not hating it, exactly, but it surely was disappointing.

Any work of fiction requires the audience to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. We pick up a book or go to a movie trusting the author to produce a credible and self-consistent world, populated by believable characters. An author breaks that trust when they do dumb things, or have their characters do dumb things. Too much dumbness and the audience can no longer believe in the story and all is lost: the fictional dream is broken and the reader or audience feels cheated. Science fiction has the additional burden of making the fictional world at least semi-plausible.

In "Stargate," for example, we're willing to accept the premise that aliens visited Earth during the time of the pyramid-builders in Egypt and left behind a "gate" that lets people move between star systems. That's impossible, of course, but for the purposes of the story we're willing to believe it. Starting with that one impossible premise, most of the rest of movie follows, and the audience can accept the fictional world "as real"--at least on it's own terms.

In "Prometheus," almost from the first scene we see things that are not just implausible; they are downright dumb. Just for a random example, consider how they locate the star system they visit There are these two archeologists who find a half-dozen van Danekin-style cave drawings. From these drawings, astronomers supposedly locate the one and only star system the cave dwellers can be referencing. Sorry. That's just dumb. First, the cave drawings are what you expect of cave drawings: big, pointy stars in a constellation. This is supposed to be accurate enough for astronomers to uniquely identify a star system? Beyond dumbness. Further, are there multiple stars in the "star system?" If so, their positions would change over millennia since they'd orbit about each other, yet they stayed in the same constellation in all the drawings, whether from 30,000 years ago or 2000 years ago. That's dumber yet. It reveals authors who are either contemptuous of their audience, or are too lazy to think things through. Or maybe they are just dumb themselves.

Not all the dumbness is limited to science. Toward the end of the movie we witness a gigantic, ring-shaped spaceship crashing to the ground. Two of our characters run frantically away. One of them falls, rolls over a couple of times, and thus is saved. The other character stupidly runs in a straight line and gets crushed. Uh-huh, check. Both the ideas that you could save yourself by rolling over and that the other character wouldn't think of swerving are just dumb.

I'll give you one more example of dumbness before talking about plot disappointments. The expedition lands on a planet with a lethal level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but when they enter a pyramid sensors report the levels have dropped. One of the scientists says, "Cool beans," and starts to take of his helmet. Dumb, but maybe the character is supposed to be dumb. Indeed, all the other characters say, "No, that's dumb. Don't do it." He does it anyway, takes a deep breath, and doesn't explode or turn green or anything. So now of course all the other characters take their helmets off. They do this after telling him it was dumb to take his off. Of course, the other reason for wearing helmets besides CO2 is to guard against biological contamination. The screenwriters know this, since this fact plays a role in a later scene. But here, they just have all the characters act stupidly for no reason. It's hard to stay in a story when the screenwriters insult your intelligence like this.

Now let's turn to the plot. I really liked the mythic potential of the plot. It had echoes of "Stargate," an implausible movie that I rather liked. But here, the whole thing is just...jumbled. The first scenes show a solitary humanoid, with a flying saucer hovering overhead, quaffing down some potion. We see him tumble into a waterfall and his body comes apart, while the special effects zoom down to a double helix that also dissipates. Later in the movie, we learn that this humanoid--who turns out to be ten feet tall--has "DNA identical to" humans. I'm not sure what that means, since he's ten feet tall and appears to have gills, but I mention this because of an inane interpretation Rodger Ebert gave to this concatenation of scenes: he concluded that this meant that the aliens were responsible for "bringing life to Earth." What? They have human DNA so they brought all life to Earth? Incredibly dumb. That doesn't even work as a metaphor. Instead, this is just a disconnected scene that never really ties to anything else in the movie: it's obscurity masking as depth. I guess the screenwriters thought we'd have forgotten this scene by the end--or we'd be asleep.

A movie that focused on the origins question could have been really interesting. This movie raises the question but doesn't do anything plausible or interersting with it. There are hints that the humanoids created us somehow, and other hints that they were in the middle of a military campaign against Earth when something went wrong and they went into suspended animation. There's even a vague hint, from a subplot involving HAL--er, I mean David, the on-board android--that they are derived from us. But the movie doesn't do anything with any of this. It just plops out these contradictory ideas with no depth or development to them. Bleh.

Since the screenplay repeatedly fumbles the human origins plot, the performances for this thread don't have much of a chance. Noomi Rapace, who was stunning in "The Girl with Dragon Tattoo," does the best she can with this dumb script. She portrays a strong, independent, and resourceful female character, reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the original "Alien." But the material is just...well, cartoonish. Take the surgery scene: it consists of slice, extract, staple, here's your alien, Mom. Then, after she takes a second to gas the loathsome creature, she runs through the ship with her stomach stapled. Uh-huh. The best actor in the world can't overcome that kind of world-class dumbness in the script. She's not helped by her love interest, Logan Marshall-Green, who seems to have graduated from the Paul Walker School of Acting.

Counterpoint to the "human origins" plot is a "who's my Daddy" plot involving the android, David, the corporate rep, Vickers, and the super-rich old dude who financed the expedition, Weyland. These three, each played by gifted actors, have the most interesting relationships in the movie. Fassbender's amoral David is a marvelous mix of HAL and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. (The overt reference the movie makes to O'Toole's performance could have been meaningful if the "human origins" plot weren't such a mess.) Charlize Theron gives an icy performance as the on-board corporate executive, with just the right nuance to leave us wondering if she's really an android. Guy Pearce, even burdened with layers of droopy latex makeup to make him appear ancient, does a credible job as Weyland. These three actors--especially Fassbender--breathe life into a rather hapless and predictable subplot. Clearly the screenwriters intended the "human origins" plot to dovetail with the "who's my Daddy" plot. It's unfortunate that the "human origins" plot is so poorly executed since this concept certainly has potential.

Other than the performances mentioned above, character development is also lacking--possibly left on the cutting room floor. There are seventeen members of the crew, and they are dysfunctional mix if ever there were one (another bit of dumbness on a trillion-dollar mission). Under these circumstances, there ought to be ample opportunity for minor characters to shine, but the script fails yet again. At the end, for example, we have three characters who make a heroic stand, sacrificing themselves for the safety of humanity. However, two of the three had no more than one or two lines of dialogue prior to that penultimate scene, cheating the audience of any connection to them or their sacrifice. Dumb writing again.

On the positive side, the special effects and visuals in this movie are stunning. But, like so much else, they felt glued on as opposed to part of a holistic artistic vision. The original "Alien" derived much of its tension from the claustrophobic, brooding sets. Shadow and light played with the audience to increase foreboding and horror. Here, however, the sets and special effects looked more like an entry on someone's resume for an Academy Award. Given the jumbled mess of the script, one really can't blame the designers. As with the cast, the woeful writing put them in a pickle: they didn't have much to work with.

I really didn't hate this movie, despite the above. I just expected so much more. At the end, it's merely another silly Hollywood science fiction movie, without a compelling story line. It confuses vagueness with mystery, obscurity with depth, and razzle-dazzle special effects with adventure.

I'd see it again, but only because I love science fiction.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Inside or Outside?

Simple Guidelines for Opening Stories and Scenes
Max Griffin

Some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century used an omniscient narrator.  This technique places the author--and the reader--outside the events of the story, looking in.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. However, modern commercial fiction has almost completely abandoned the omniscient narrator.  Today, about thirty percent of all commercial fiction uses a first person narrator, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited.  The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the latter approach and its consequences for opening a scene in a short story or novel.

Before starting on our main enterprise, it's worthwhile to have a short discussion of the prevailing theory of fiction today.  The guiding concept is that of the
 fictional dream.  John Gardner conceived this idea and was its most articulate spokesperson.  In his excellent guide for authors, The Art of Fiction, he states

"In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one's dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he's written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer's process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead." 

To be sure, there are other theories of fiction than Gardner's.  Many powerful works of modern literature deliberately use a "distancing effect" (German:
 Verfremdungseffekt), promoted by Bertolt Brecht among other masters.  This competing idea purposefully reminds the readers--or the audience, in the case of theater or cinema--that the fictional events are an artifice and thus strives to engage the readers on a more critical and intellectual level.  

However, this essay is about commercial fiction, and in this arena Gardner's ideas have become dominant.  One might think of the "fictional dream" as drawing the reader into the story from the outside world, while the "distancing effect" places the reader outside the story, looking in, hence the title for this essay.  Commercial fiction today is firmly on the side of putting the reader inside the story.

This dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, but it's a helpful paradigm to keep in mind.  If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state.  You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state.  While the readers are inside the story, you do
 not want them thinking--you want them believing,imagining, and feeling 

It's not that you don't want your readers to
 ever think--surely every author has a message they want their readers take away from their story.  However, you don't want them puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story.  Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that's when you want them thinking.  

So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream.  The readers become the author's active partners in imagining the fictional world, in a state of suspended disbelief.  In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it's the author's primary task to launch this dream.  Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.

Here are two simple guidelines.

1.  Launch a new scene by orienting the readers.  The reader needs to know who the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.  If the scene is embedded in the story, the readers also need to know when it's taking place relative to the earlier scenes.

2.  At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.  

These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice.  It's amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the first guideline.  The second step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character's head, is even more challenging.  Let's look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.

It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom's hospital room.  He felt bad seeing Tom's injuries and wished he'd been more careful when planning their hunting trip. 

These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:

We know who point-of-view character is: John.  We've established we're in his head because we know he's "feeling bad."
We know where he's at--in a hospital.
We know what he's doing and why he's there--visiting his brother.
We know when the scene takes place--dinnertime. 

Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers.  Note you have to
 name John to answer the "who" question.  The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.  

 not start by writing, "It was dinnertime when he walked into the room."  The pronoun "he" has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in.  Even if the point-of-view doesn't change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream.  Reinforcing that we're still in John's head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.

 not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character's ears.  Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks.  Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are.  You don't want them thinking--at least, not yet!  

The worst thing about this opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John's head.    Doing that takes thought and craft.  The author needs to be
 inside John's head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.

John heaved a cleansing breath and his nose tingled as he inhaled astringent hospital scents.  He stepped into his brother Tom's room where a nurse's aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom's waiting lips.  John blinked back tears at the sight of the casts immobilizing his brother's limbs.  Guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat while memories of yesterday's hunting accident came flooding back.

This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it's constructed to make some specific points about craft.  It starts with John doing something personal--heaving a cleansing breath.  We learn that he's in a hospital from the scents that this breath brings.  In fact, his nose tingles in response to the "astringent" scents.  All of this combines to make this bit of information intimate and immediate, since it's about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he's in a hospital.  In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom's injuries in specific ways: he can't feed himself, he's on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts.  We also learn that he's getting dinner, which answers the "when" question.  Finally, we learn that John "feels bad" through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens.  These are all visceral, inner sensations that help to put the readers into John's head and establish him as the point-of-view character.

It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view--the first opening is 29 words and the second is73 words.  But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John's head and hence into the scene and the story.

Let me do one more example, this one based on an opening to one of my short stories.

Matt looked at the snow storm through his window.  It was night, and the streetlight illuminated the storm making him think of death.  Downstairs, his best friend argued with his wife.  He wanted to yell at them to stop, but he couldn't.  He had had a headache and rubbed his eyes.

Here we know some the basic answers:
Who: Matt.
Where: upstairs.
What:  He's looking out the window.
Why:  This is an unanswered question, although it seems to have something to do with the argument downstairs.
When: It's night.

Notice that the "why" question is largely unanswered.  Exactly why is Matt looking out the window instead of going downstairs?  What is the argument about?  If he wants to yell at them, why can't he?  Why does he have a headache and what does that have to do with the story?  Sometimes leaving one of the basic questions unanswered or partially answered can launch the plot, which is the case here.  Part of the point is that the guidelines are just that: guidelines.  It would be a mistake to follow thes rules, lemming-like, over a cliff.

Here's the opening I actually wrote for this story "In Dreams

Matt pressed his palm against the window pane and let his forehead kiss the glass.  Outside, an immaculate shroud of snow enfolded the night-shadowed avenue.  Flakes, silent and inevitable, wafted through the streetlight's halo.  He tilted his head to peer through the window, where icy facets glittered like stardust across the drifts.  

Voices from downstairs, muffled and indistinct, muttered through the heating ducts.  He wanted to scream at them, his wife and his best friend, but no sound escaped his throat.  Matt withdrew his hand from the chill glass and rubbed his eyes.  His cold fingers soothed the pain that lingered there.

In this story, it turns out that Matt is dead by his wife's hand, and we are in his disembodied soul--a pair of twists not revealed until the very end.  In the opening, I wanted to foreshadow these very specific plot elements and crafted language to this end.  Words like "shroud," "inevitable,"  "silent," "halo," and "stardust" all have deliberate portent.  Instead of saying "he couldn't" yell at his wife and best friend, I say "no sound escaped his throat," which is quite different.  His "cold fingers" are also foreshadowing, as is the fact that the pain "lingers" between his eyes--where his wife shot him. 

Once again, as with the prior example, the point with this opening is to draw the readers into the point-of-view character's head and, through the character's emotions, deeds and sensations, to draw them into the fictional world.  If, at the same time, you can foreshadow the action and plot of the story, so much the better. 

I'm sure you can find examples of your own where the author makes use of these guidelines.  Indeed, I've posted this as a message board so that you can add your own examples and comments.

Also, never forget that guidelines are just that.  They are suggestions, based on both theory and practical experience.  Your story may have different demands or structure.  Maybe you want to employ the "distancing effect," in which case nothing in this essay applies.  As in the second example above, maybe some element of orienting the reader is connected to the twist that makes the story work.  Always follow
 your muse, not that of someone else.  At the same time, take advantage of things that make sense for your story and your style.

Good luck, and good writing!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Flash Fiction for Halloween

Mr. Moon, Shine on Me
flash fiction
Max Griffin

Mr. Moon is full tonight. I can just see him if I stand on the table by my bed, on my tippy-toes. When you stand like that, you can look out of the basement window and see our backyard. I pull on my chains so I can see Mr. Moon better. He's just sneaking over Mr. Wolfson's roof next door, just like he's playing peek-a-boo. I don't play peek-a-boo anymore. That's for babies. Mr. Wolfson used to let me play with his puppy, though. He's nice to me. His puppy gave me kisses sometimes.

My swing set is in the backyard. It's all shiny in the moonlight. It looks real pretty when Mr. Moon shines on it. I wish Mr. Moon would shine on me.

I wish I could play on my swing set. But not tonight. Mr. Moon is full tonight.

It's real scary when Mr. Moon is full. They scare me when there's a full moon. They always chain me in the basement on those nights. Sometimes they hit me, too. They're real scary when Mr.Moon is full.

My legs hurt where they hit me. Standing on tippy-toe makes my legs hurt the worst. My chains clank when I lay back down on my bed. I hug Mr. Bear. It's cold in the basement tonight. The wind is blowing outside, like my whistle that Daddy threw away because I blew on it too much and it hurt his ears. It's cold and I can't reach my covers. They're far away, on the floor across the basement. I tried to get them but the chains bit my leg and choked me so bad I couldn't reach them.

I wish they didn't make me stay here, but they said I was bad. They hit me and put the chains on me and said I was a very, very bad little boy. They must be right. They're my mommy and daddy. I try to be good. Cross my heart!

When they hit me, I cried and cried. I screamed when they carried me down here. I even hit Daddy. But they didn't care. I don't know why Mommy and Daddy hate me. I hug Mr. Bear tighter. Mr. Bear loves me.

The floor creaks from Mommy and Daddy walking around upstairs. They're yelling again. Sometimes I think Mommy and Daddy hate each other, too. I'm afraid Daddy might leave again. He left once for days and days but then he came back. Mommy cried when he left. She hugged me when she cried. That was nice; she gives good hugs.

But then she chained me in the basement and told me I was bad and hit me.

Daddy was gone for the longest time when he left. I was scared. Mommy said we didn't have enough to eat. Then Daddy came back. He didn't have any food, but Mommy hugged him and kissed him anyway. He was all hairy and Mommy made him shave. She said he looked like an animal. I don't know why she said that. Daddy didn't look at all like Mr. Wolfson's puppy. He put the shaving cream on my face and shaved me, too. We both giggled. That was fun, to giggle with Daddy.

They're yelling again. I don't understand what they're saying. It's all my fault. They must be fighting about me. There's a growling sound, too. It can't be Mr. Wolfson's puppy. He made growly sounds sometimes, but he doesn't come in our back yard any more.

It's so cold and my legs ache. My side hurts, too. Why did they hit me? Why are they yelling at each other? Now Mommy is screaming at Daddy. Daddy screams back. I think they maybe broke some dishes. I hope they aren't the ones that Grandma gave us. Grandma is nice to me. She loves me. She never hits me or locks me in the basement.

Mr. Moon's face is in the window now. He's shining right on me, here in the basement. I don't need to climb on my table anymore to see him. I don't like it when Mr. Moon is full. They scare me and hit me when Mr. Moon is full.

They shout some more. Then a door slams real loud, and a car starts and drives away. Mommy is crying. Her sobs sound all echo-y in the register above my head. I'm scared that Daddy has left again. Maybe if I go upstairs and kiss her, she'll love me and hug me. I think I can slip the chains off, now that Mr. Moon has shined on me. Maybe if I trot to the top of the stairs and scratch at the door, Mommy will open it and let me kiss her.

I'm nearly done changing now. I almost always change when Mr. Moon is full. He has to shine on me, though, or I don't change. I look just like Mr. Wolfson's puppy now. Poor puppy! Last month, when Mr. Moon was full, I got out and ate him.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Knowing When To Quit

This is a rather long joke.I first heard this from a friend who was later to become my brother-in-law.I'm no longer married to his sister, and he's long deceased, but the memory his humor still brings a smile to my lips.I hope you enjoy. 

Knowing When To Quit

Once upon a time there was a couple who longed to have children. Over many years they waited for their first child to come but, alas, for many years they waited in vain. They prayed and gave offerings at church and finally were resigned that it was God's will that they not have a child.

Then a miracle happened and the woman became pregnant! Perseverance has its special reward, as the couple would come to learn.

The couple was ecstatic at their good fortune. They added a room to their cottage for their child and made list after list of baby names. Boy names, girl names, they didn't care. They just wanted their child.

At last the happy day came. The midwife arrived, the father boiled water, and before long a babe's happy cries filled their cottage.

"What do we have, a boy or a girl?" the father asked the midwife.

"Well, I'm not sure, my friend," said she.

"What! Is our baby not healthy?"

"Oh no, the babe's cries are as lusty as any child I have ever delivered." The midwife hesitated. "But, well, your child seems to be missing something. You see, there is only a head. No body, no arms, no legs. Just a head."

Naturally the couple was disappointed at this. But they reasoned that part of a child was better than none and determined to rejoice in their good fortune. After all, their child appeared healthy and happy.

They loved their child dearly. They named their child "Head" since none of those baby names seemed right. After all, it was impossible to say if Head was a little boy or a little girl.

So the years passed happily for the three of them in their little cottage. Eventually, as these things happen, Head turned eighteen and the father resolved that it was time to initiate the new adult to the ways of the world, and to alcohol in particular. So he put Head in his bowling ball bag and they set off for the local pub.

Once there, the proud father put Head on the bar and ordered a glass of wine. Head slurped at the wine while a huge grin twisted his lips. At the last gulp, there was a huge puff of smoke and a flash of lightning. When the smoke cleared, a miracle had occurred. Head had grown shoulders and two arms.

Head flexed his new fingers--or maybe they were her new fingers, for gender remained a matter for speculation. Eyes wide with wonder, Head exclaimed, "That's wonderful, Pop! I want more!"

So the father ordered a beer. Head chugged the brew like an expert. There was another huge puff of smoke and flash of lightning. Head had grown a body. Head ran his hands over his chest while a wry grin bent his lips. "I guess I'm a boy, Pop." His laughter turned to a hearty belch before he said, "That was even. Let's do it again. I want more."

This time, the father ordered a Harvey Wallbanger. Head drained the drink in one swallow. Once again there was an enormous puff of smoke and lightning, even bigger than the first two. But this time Head was gone! He was nowhere to be seen, as though that last drink was too much for him and he just disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Of course the father was dismayed at his loss.

The bartender could only think of one thing to say.

"He should have quit while he was a head!"

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Monster

At rest in bed I dream a dream
of monsters who await
in darkness where they plot and scheme
With hearts that beat with hate.

My mind sees beasts with eyes agleam.
Their furry paws create
A whispered shuffle to make me scream,
And limbs with fear gyrate.

These creatures snarl and sound extreme,
Their yowls and howls so great
And mighty shake my room. They seem
So harsh and won't abate.

Yet monsters tremble when I scream!
They flee and hide and wait.
Perhaps they fear what humans deem
To be a normal state.

Could they be like me, I dream?
Perhaps we can create
Not fear but friendship. So I beam
A smile and risk my fate.

Henceforth in bed I can allow
My friend with me to cower.
The dark still scares us but we now
Bring comfort to each other.

I'm not very good at poems, but here's an attempt I'm willing to put out for the public to peruse.

To Be or Not

Every author has heard an editor, or perhaps a colleague in one of our writing groups, complain about "weak verbs." The easiest example of a weak verb is any form of "to be." For instance, this sentence uses a weak verb.
Mary was a crybaby about Sam calling her lazy.
"Was" is the weak verb in this sentence; it carries the burden of linking Mary to her actions. In fact, the sentence is pretty awful all around since it tells the readers she's a crybaby as opposed to showing it. Many editors would ask the author to change it to a more active sentence. For example, we might re-write the above in the following way.
Mary's lower lip thrust out when Sam called her lazy. "I am NOT!" she whined.
Most of us would probably agree the second is better than the first. But why is it better? After all, it's still got that weak verb: Mary says, "I am not," and "am" is a form of "to be." Of course, what makes it different is that we are showing Mary acting like a crybaby as opposed to telling the readers. Her petulant speech denying it is part of the showing.

The point here is that when we talk about "weak verbs," it's usually shorthand for a more fundamental idea. In this case, that idea is "show, don't tell." The weak verb passively describes Mary, while the second example shows, through her words and deeds, that she's being a crybaby.

I recently read a long essay on an online writing site about this subject. The author had gathered together dozens of examples of published authors who used weak verbs in their prose. Some of the authors were famous, and many were current best-sellers. The essay used these examples to make the argument that "weak verbs," and forms of "to be" in particular, are just fine to use in our prose. After all, if they're good enough for Hemingway, or Capote, or Maugham, why can't beginning authors, use them?

Well, there's a good answer to that. We shouldn't use them because we want to get published.

Now, I could argue that there is a good reason having to do with craft for preferring active verbs. Like all preferences, it's probably not a good idea to apply this one with obsessive zeal. However, where weak verbs lead to weak writing, as in the example above, we should avoid them. But that's not the argument I want to make here. My argument is that if we want to get published, we should avoid weak verbs.

For the beginning author, the challenge is to get off of the editor's reject pile and into the consider-for-publication pile. Editors--and agents--are humans. By all accounts, submissions from would-be authors swamp their inboxes: they get far more stories and novels than they can possibly publish or even read.

Editors and agents have developed experience-based techniques for sorting manuscripts. Since they can't read everything that crosses their desks, they will scan for elements they can quickly and easily find, and they use those to sort into "read" and "reject" piles. Scientists do the same thing when confronted with reams of data; they call this technique heuristics. These become gatekeeper rules. 

Just like "weak verbs" in the example above is shorthand for "show, don't tell," these heuristics are shortcuts to help over-worked editors and publishers sort through their submissions.

So, what do editors use to sort manuscripts? Well, the first thing is whether or not the author has previously published any fiction. Nothing succeeds like success. Thus, one can find countless examples from published authors to show that they have used weak verbs, passive voice, adverbs, inserted info-dumps and even head-hopped and still been published. I could give you an example of a current NY Times best-selling author who does all of these things. Whether these are good or bad isn't my point. These authors sell their works to publishers--and readers buy their novels--based on their prior sales history.

What other heuristics do editors and agents use? Well, some will decide which pile your submission belongs in based only on your first sentence. That may not be fair, and may not even make sense, but it's a fact. That makes the first sentence critical for an unpublished author.

All of the other "don't-do's" that we learn about the craft of fiction fall into the same category. Passive voice? Editors will likely toss it in the "reject pile." Info-dumps? Same thing. Weak verbs, head-hopping, adverbs, omniscient narrators and many other things have the same outcome--for unpublished authors.

Some of these things are fashion. Again, one can find countless examples to illustrate this by looking at classics from decades ago. So what? We don't have time machines to go back to 1980 to submit our novels. Fashions change, and many of the things that result in rejection today were pervasive fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. This doesn't mean the current fashion is right. It just is.

If you're an unpublished author who craves to be published, you should listen to what editors and agents say about their heuristics. Your goal is to get into the "read" pile, and avoid the "reject pile." Weak verbs are one of the things that land you in the wrong pile. Put them in your fiction at your peril.