Writing Badly, Well: Part 1 “To Be” verbs

If you write or are new to writing and are still waiting for your muse to come along or time to be on your side, then you’ve heard the adage “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs.” I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re brand new to writing, it’s time to step up your game and stop living by these rules. If you ARE new to writing, stop reading this, stick to the rules you’re told because you’re not ready for this.

First up, not all ‘to be’ verbs are passive voice. And not all passive voice is bad.

I linked these two rules “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs” because they tend to run in tandem. But they ARE different.

As for using passive voice, one need only look to Catcher in the Rye for your example of how to use it, master it, and when to use it appropriately. Passive voice is good if you want the actor of the action to be ambiguous. Or if you want to instill a sense of lack of action or even instill in the reader a sense of despair.

My favorite case of using passive voice is ANY time the action and the acted UPON matter more than the actor doing the action on the acted upon. Make sense?

Example: “Mistakes were made.” or “The door was left open.”

Who’s the actor? In the first case, it’s unclear, probably for a reason. That reason could be political (I don’t want to step on toes even though I know who made the mistakes). In the second case, “The door was left open” is left without an actor probably because we don’t know! But the most important thing is that the door was left open. In horror, you want to keep the fear alive, so you delete the actor. In suspense, you delete the actor for…well…suspense.

Passive voice isn’t bad. And if you use it correctly, you can add an element to your writing that breathes life into the prose and the reader’s experience.

Second, all ‘to be’ verbs are inactive.

This is true. But not all inactive verbs are bad.

Changing every ‘to be’ verb to an active verb is painful to read. It tires the reader. Inactive verbs provide a moment of calm when there’s no reason to engage the reader or get the heart racing. Changing “He was tall.” to “He towered over things.” is stupid. Unless there’s a good reason to tell us that he’s towering over someone in particular, all that’s important is that he’s tall. That’s it. Changing “She was American.” to “She spoke with American gusto.” is all well and good, but if that’s not important to the story beyond she’s an American, then why????

You want to keep the reader reading, not tire them with every sentence being the most important sentence on the page. Some sentences are just informative. Those sentences need inactive verbs. It gets you to the point and makes active verbs jump more when they do come up.

This push for active verbs is the same thing that’s wrong with modern horror movies. You’re constantly on edge and fake scares are thrown at you so often that by the time you get to the horror you’re so damn tired that you don’t even care anymore.

 

 

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