It was a dark and stormy night. That sentence surely takes the prize as the most clichéd and often cited example of bad writing. Do you know the reason? It lies in the first two words, “it was”. This construction and its variants are ubiquitous in our speech and much of our writing. For example,
It’s snowing hard as I write this post. There are several people sitting near me who look worried. It’ll be hard to get up the slippery driveway when I get home if this continues.
In sentences like the ones above, “it” and “there” are dummy pronouns because they refer to nothing specific, thus functioning as dummy subjects. Simply put, they are a form of passive voice, which generally weakens your sentence and slows the story.
The fix is simple. Reword your sentence to ditch the dummy subject. For example, here’s a possible revision of that initial dark and stormy night intro:
The heavy scent of rain filled my lungs, and my scalp tingled with anxiety as I peered through the window. Nearly constant lightning showed trees bowing like ballerinas before the gale. I imagined the gods bowling up above, and the stakes were high.
Moving on to the next example:
I look up from my keyboard and see snowflakes the size of nickels rapidly coating the ground. Worry etches the faces of people peering out the window at nearby tables. A woman at the next table looks my way. “Wow, I dread the trip home on these roads, and my uphill drive is going to be impossible if this keeps up,” I say. “How far do you have to go?”
These revisions switch from telling to showing. They add sensory detail to pull readers into the scene and create connection.
Don’t worry about simple dummy subjects as you write your initial draft. They are easy to spot and easy to toss, so think of them as your friends, giving you a springboard for going on to greatness. Use your imagination to flesh out the thoughts and add life to those dummy subject.
As with much writing advice,
there is an exception to this rule has an exception for dialogue. Real people use dummy subjects and other grammar shortcuts all the time in casual conversation. Sanitizing these elements out off written conversation will result in stiff, plastic-sounding characters, so let them keep the occasional “there are” or “It is.”
Write now: Read through a story you’ve written, keeping an eye open for dummy subjects, then edit them out. Then read a published story by an acclaimed writer and reverse this process. See how many sentences you can deconstruct, adding dummy subjects. Analyze the effect.
Challenge yourself to write at least twenty pages without using a single dummy subject, other than in dialogue. Then, if you feel their absence has ruined your writer’s voice, of course you can add a few back in, but you’ll do so with the power of purpose and awareness, not because you don’t know better.