Sometimes you need to let “be” be.
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Welcome back to Misused Advice, where we examine some of the “rules” of writing that have been twisted over time. If I’m being honest, I have a bit of a grudge against this particularly slippery rule. Depending on the source, this one goes by different names, so we first need to pin those down.
Double Trouble Origins
It’s the bastard spawn of two separate writing concepts: strong verbs and active voice. When misapplied, they can both be taught as “Don’t use the word be.” This includes all the conjugations of it: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been.
Why would you want to write this way? Let’s look at the more beneficial advice this started from.
Using Strong Verbs
We covered this a bit in my post on the much-maligned adverbs. Unless you’re writing deliberate repetition for effect, reading the same verb over and over gets monotonous. And reading nothing but various states of being isn’t exactly exciting either.
The dog is brown. His toy is squeaky. He likes to squeak. He is happy. He eats kibble.
Yawn! When you’ve moved beyond the basics of how to hold a pen and spell words, this is more of a rough outline than a descriptive passage. You can see how easy it would be to blame this on the verb choice here. When you’re a writer or teacher who is short on time, looking for excessive use of be can seem like a handy shortcut. Plus, having to use any other verb out there to replace all of them can be a great exercise to boost your creativity and add variety to your writing.
Avoiding Passive Voice
The passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is acted upon, as opposed to the active voice, when the subject acts. It’s created by reversing the sentence order and using the past participle of the verb, usually connected by be—which is why be is often used as a flag for the passive voice.
Active: He ate the cookies.
Passive: The cookies were eaten.
There are some problems with passive voice. It’s less clear and concise, for one. And in fiction, the active voice usually pulls readers deeper into the experience since the emphasis of the sentence is on the acting subject.
Shortcut to Failure
With be being an indicator of both weak verbs and passive voice, eliminating it seems like an obvious shortcut, right?
Well, no. There are no perfect shortcuts in good writing.
Though be isn’t an exciting verb, it is not the only “weak” one. In my example of weak verbs, likes and eats are just as bland. And, in the right context, be can pack a punch. The biggest tension can be derived from a state of being—whether someone is alive or dead.
This Test Gets an F
Looking for be is a terrible way to look for use of the passive voice. If you’re paying attention, I just used is in the last sentence and are in this one, and both are in the active voice. When used in a dependent clause—such as this very sentence!—the passive voice can drop be and use the past participle alone.
So using be as a test will give you false negatives and false positives. Yeah…not a great test. The zombie test is much more effective for passive voice: if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb and still make sense without changing the meaning—or already have “by ___” in there—the sentence is using the passive voice.
The cookies were eaten [by zombies]. → Makes sense. We have cookie-loving zombies. → Passive
He ate the cookies [by zombies]. →Zombies don’t really factor in the cookie eating here. → Active
The house was built [by zombies]. →It’s probably not a pretty house, but it works. → Passive
The werewolf can be killed [by zombies]. →This is a huge change in meaning. Instead of the mortality of the werewolf, the method of dispatching one is the topic. → Active
Overly Aggressive to Passive Voice
Every tool in English grammar has a place, and that includes the passive voice. One use is to shift emphasis to what would otherwise be the object of the sentence. Depending on the point of view you’re telling the story from, you may want to shift blame toward or away from a character. Is John kicking Bob, or is Bob being kicked by John? It’s a subtle distinction, but when used purposefully, it can direct the way readers react.
Secondly, sometimes the actor of an action is unknown. The whole genre of mystery would be nigh-impossible to write without the passive voice. The stories start with a crime being committed, and if the actor were revealed, there wouldn’t be a story. So you can’t write, “The villain murdered the victim.” I mean, you can, but it would be an odd sentence outside of a satire. The normal way to write it would be, “The victim was murdered.”
Lastly—and one I’d suggest using sparingly—is that passive voice can be used to create a sense of despair. Try writing an entire paragraph of internal dialogue in the active voice. Then rewrite the whole thing in the passive voice. Because of the shift in emphasis on the character being acted upon, a sense of victimhood and helplessness will tint the passive version. This can be a good tool to pull out for your main character’s absolute bleakest moment, but because it’s such a strong tool, it can be overwhelming for the reader if you let it linger too long.
No Contortionists Here
While it’s helpful to make sure you aren’t leaning too heavily on be for the sake of variety, don’t twist your sentences in knots to avoid it. Even if you succeed in deleting them all, it’s not likely to get rid of all the passive voice and weak verbs, and they aren’t all bad anyway.
Were you taught a form of this rule or some other strange-sounding writing advice? Let us know! Next time, we’ll discuss the advice that you must have a likeable main character.Join us next week for an interview with author Lisa Borne Graves to discuss Draca, the second book in Celestial Spheres and sequel to Fyr.