Passivity at its
Let me tell you a story:
Once there was a little boy named Bobby. He was eight years old, and he was going to a school for boys his age. Some of the boys there were mean. Especially Jim. Jim was a bully. One day Jim was beating up Tom, one of Bobby’s friends. Bobby had been on the swings, but then he decided to stand up to Jim. He was brave, but Jim beat him up too.
All right, let’s all collectively admit that story deserves to be printed out and burned.
It sounds like something a seven year old would write on a lined piece of paper and declare it their ‘novel’.
But let’s think about it for a minute.
Why does this story belong to the list of ‘bad tales told only to laugh at’? We could start rattling off things like “poor characterization”, “weak conflict”, “no theme”, “weak sentence structure”, “no emotion”, and so on. However, none of these things are the root problem. They’re all there, for sure, but they’re effects. To understand any effect, you need to find the cause.
The simple answer: Passive voice.
Passive voice is, simply put, using any form of the verb ‘to be’ (including but not limited to was, were, have, has, had, been, being, would, could, etc.). These verbs convey concepts, but nothing else. They tell us exactly what is going on, and leave nothing to the imagination. We don’t have to use our brains to process the story above. Out of the eight sentences above, only one has no passive verb, and even that one is just a fragment, without any verb at all.
Often times you’ll hear warnings like “avoid passive verbs” “don’t use passive voice”, and we’ve all heard the ‘show, don’t tell’ motto that sums up every writer.
A common solution is just to get into your word processor’s search engine, type in ‘was’ or ‘have’ and proceed to wipe all mentions of these words from your novel. That works. But what do you replace it with?
Often, it’s replaced with ‘could’ or ‘would’ or ‘I felt’ ‘He saw’ ‘They heard’.
Sadly, this is still a form of passivity. The reader doesn’t register any of these as a clear picture. It’s like painting without paints. Dipping your brush in water and spreading it all over a blank canvas doesn’t produce much. Wrinkles, blurred watermarks, and a few holes where you poked too hard in frustration.
Words like Was
I’ve often seen the word ‘was’ treated like it’s illegal. Use ‘was’ and suddenly your manuscript is worth nothing.
While it is true that too much passive voice will kill your story, it’s not the devil himself. I have a feeling he’s a bit more scary than Was.
Look at Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These books are some of the most popular novels in the history of fiction. They’re adored by fans and critics, loved by young and old. I suggest them highly if you haven’t read them.
But when you read it, what word pops up on every page, at least once. Multiple times, even.
Was, was, was.
*long pause as realization dawns*
Next example. Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. Massive book (over on thousand pages), beautiful prose, excellent plot and characters. Also highly recommended (after you read the first book in that series, Words of Kings, of course). But what verb appears on almost every page?
Was, was, was.
J. K. Rowling?
Was, was, WAS.
Take a look at published authors. Read their stories. Look at the verbs. They use ‘was’ over and over and over.
A Balanced Solution
I’ll give you three reasons when and why to use the word ‘was’:
1. First drafts – why? The first draft is not about perfection. It’s not about perfect wording. In fact, very few first drafts look anything like the final cut. A lot of the time, first drafts are just getting the words out of your head and onto paper. It’s hard work, and passive voice is an easy way to get it done, especially when you have a deadline (NaNoWriMo anyone?).
2. Dialogue – sometime, go about your daily life and listen to people. Make note of what words they use to communicate. I’ll be every single person you speak to beyond a ‘good morning’ or ‘buenas dias’ or [insert other-lingual greeting] will use a passive verb in one form or another. Why? Because verb forms of ‘to be’ are the simplest ways to communicate a concept quickly. It’s a real word used by real people. And as a writer your job is to create believable dialogue. So when someone never says ‘was’ in dialogue, it can sound forced. Let Gordon the Mafia leader say “I saw ‘im walkin’ in the park, and ‘e was carryin’ a knife” if he needs to.
3. Emphasis – Some things just need to be said in fewer words. ‘Was’ can add that touch of artistic vagueness without making me want to pull my hair out.
I started to drift into unconsciousness. No. I clawed at the light, but it slipped through my fingers and was hurled off into the darkness.
There’s nothing wrong with using a few was-es when you need to.
Of course, my example at the top proves constant passive voice is not only detrimental to the story, but makes your reader hate your story with a burning passion*. I’ll give you three times when not to use passive voice:
1. Describing emotions – saying ‘he was angry’ or ‘she was frustrated’ is about as helpful in describing what someone feels as saying ‘he felt like a goat was ramming the inside of his brain into a mush that had a similar consistency to the oatmeal he ate that morning… probably the same color, too’.
What emotion did you get from that sentence? None. Except maybe a queasy desire to know what color his oatmeal was that morning.
‘He was angry’ doesn’t produce quite the same effect as ‘Johnny clenched his chubby little fists and ground his teeth together. His face turned red as the man continued to ridicule him.’ Never, for any reason, describe an emotion with passive voice. Emotion is not passive, except the actual emotion passivity.
2. Describing cities and landscapes – I don’t include describing people because sometimes there’s no other way to get across the important fact that ‘her eyes were purple and light green’. However, don’t use it to describe objects and places. Find a better way to say ‘the city was majestic’. This leads into point three that you shouldn’t use it as
3. A transition – the sentence above describing the majestic city will often be found just before launching into what makes the city majestic; the swooping bridges, the narrow spires and domes of the palaces, etc., etc. The passive sentence is simply used to get us thinking about the city instead of whatever we were discussing before (say, the hero’s love interest).
Don’t use passive voice to get us thinking about something else. Find a better transition sentence.
‘Was’ is not evil, but it is not good. It’s like any other word, it’s the way we use it, delicately or otherwise, that makes it powerful.
*I’m itching to print that example out and burn it, myself.