Why, you wonder, does the author take so long in getting Tom's limp body from here to there? Does she dread the cow pasture? Should I? Will the rest of the story take as long as this first sentence?
Passive voice can slow your fiction down to a dreary standstill. And that's why it's so important to recognize the passive voice and kill it before it kills your story. In the above sentence, the action has been stamped out by a "was" and a "were." The verbs, though dormant, exist in this sentence: "drag" and “stand." But the author hasn't allowed them to take the action. We would find ourselves much more involved with the action if we read,
The girl dragged Tom's limp body around the barn to the pasture where the cows stood.
Not only is the action closer to the beginning of the sentence but the author has also been forced to insert a dragger, the girl. The immediacy of the action draws us in and makes us wonder what will happen next.
In the active voice, a doer exists to execute the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Or, worse yet, the subject disappears from the scene altogether, as the girl in the above example. Because of fiction’s character-driven nature, the subjects need to be as active as possible. So don’t relegate them to victim material, and please don’t leave them out.
Downfalls of the Passive VoicePassive voice makes for wordy writing. Extra, meaningless words can swamp your writing. We get into the trap of writing in the passive voice for several reasons.
First, writing with active verbs takes more forethought. Our language provides plenty of gutsy, strong verbs, but our brains usually first think of the same sentence constructs we use day after day. Reading exciting prose on a regular basis can help bring these strong verbs to the forefront of your vocabulary. Instead of writing, “She was walking briskly to the hut,” you’ll say, “She raced to the hut.” As you watch a squirrel scamper across the park bench, a van swerve to a screeching halt, a speck of dust descend to its final resting place, think of multiple active verbs that could describe the action. Practice thinking in verbs.
Secondly, most of us habitually speak in the passive voice, so it takes some practiced discrimination even to recognize those tiny, sneaky “be” verbs. When trying to adopt a “natural” voice in our writing, we tend to write exactly as we would speak. But all those extra, insignificant words that dissolve into the phone line as we converse with friends turn ugly when they show up in black and white. Just as readers don’t want to read all of the “ums,” “ers,” and “ya knows,” they don’t want to read “be” verb after “be verb.”
Get Rid of the Passive
The easiest way to identify the passive voice in your writing is to sit down with a pen—preferably a red pen if you’re serious about gutting your writing--and circle all the forms of the verb “be” (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been). These “be” verbs lack vigor because they convey no action. This exercise opens your eyes to the “be” addict within.
Once you have circled all those wimpy “be” verbs, examine a sentence:
A decision was reached by the committee.
Who prompts the action in this sentence? The committee. Bump the committee up to the beginning:
The committee reached a decision.
You’ve knocked out two superfluous words and given the committee some real power.
When you begin ridding your writing of passive verbs, you’ll find that unruly prepositional phrases fall by the wayside as well. Read the following sentence, a prepositional wasteland:
The costumes for the school play were designed on Friday by the students from Mrs. Jacob’s fourth period art class.
This sentence never ends. The author has added so many prepositional phrases that we the readers lose sight of the sentence’s direction and meaning. Try,
On Friday, Mrs. Jacob’s fourth period art class designed the costumes for the school play.
Not only has the sentence lost five unnecessary words, we get the details about the subjects and the time period (Friday) up at the front of the sentence. We’re not so weary by the time we find out the purpose of the action.
As you make your way through another red-lined sentence, and another, and through a paragraph, you’ll find that sometimes a “be” ought to be. The forms of “be” work well when you want to link a subject to a noun that clearly renames it or to an adjective that describes it. Trying to meddle with a “be” verb with one of these functions might just alter the meaning of your sentence or add an action when one truly doesn’t exist.
Advertising is legalized lying.
Any attempt at getting rid of the “is” in this sentence makes for a wordy, confusing statement. So don’t be too rigid about eliminating every single “be” verb in sight, but do examine your motives in using the verbs you choose. A conscious decision to use a “be” verb may be just what you need. Just don’t use them ignorantly.
This “be”-verb elimination process seems tedious, and it truly is the first time you try it, but you’ll begin to notice patterns in your own writing and ways to fix those passive patterns. Soon, you can avoid the red pen therapy because you begin writing more actively in your rough drafts. You’ll think in terms of verbs instead of nouns, and your writing will gain intensity and verve.
It takes work and lots of red ink, but abolishing the passive voice can only bring rewards. Good luck, and, hey, maybe I’ll see you sometime at the office supply store in the red pen aisle.