The “Is” or “To Be” Question in Fiction Writing

I’ve been looking into the passive voice and its use in fiction. I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a weak grammar foundation. Most of my grammar knowledge is the result of independent study. Passive voice is one of those grammatical issues I understood only to a certain degree and with some misunderstanding. As I researched the subject, I often came across a lively argument. In one article, someone would say “is” is passive voice and should be avoided, but then another person would say that idea is a bad myth propagated by writers.

I have flipped and flopped about “is” without actually analyzing the issue. At one moment I’d decide “is” should be avoided in most cases (I had no idea which cases) and, at the next, I’d change my mind for no real reason.

I had almost made up my mind when I read author Amy Padgett’s exhaustive and informative article on passive voice and definitive answer to the sticky “is” question.

The next day, having congratulated myself on finally taking the time to figure it all out, I cracked open my copy of Strunk & White and saw this under the header, “Use the active voice:”

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

Well, if I read Amy’s article correctly, using “there is” and the like in a sentence does not necessarily put that sentence into the passive voice. I sort of knew about the “there is” problem, but what specifically is wrong with it and what does it have to do with active voice? And if “to be” verbs aren’t passive voice, why do they seem to play a part in every hindrance to active voice? When can writers use “to be” verbs?

“To Be” Verbs and Passive Verb Formation

To Be Verbs IllustrationBefore we get started on “there is/was/etc.,” let’s deconstruct a sentence to identify the role “to be” verbs like “is” play in passive voice.

We come across the phrase, “The bridge was crushed by a giant chicken,” and we recognize it as passive voice. Maybe we tell ourselves that it’s passive because “was” is present in the phrase, but it’s actually because, as Amy explains, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action. Perhaps we think “was” was the problem because in correcting the sentence (“A giant chicken crushed the bridge.”) the word “was” disappears.

The truth is, the “to be” verb is an accomplice to the crime of passive voice, but it isn’t the real criminal. “To be” is only guilty of participating in passive verb formation.

The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the “to be” verb with the past participle of the main verb. [emphasis added]

A participle is an adjective formed from a verb. In other words, it’s a verb that modifies a noun. A past participle is a participle that indicates past or completed action or time. It’s often formed by adding an “ed” or “d” to the base form of regular verbs (the regular verb “crush” becomes the past participle “crushed”), but it is formed in other ways for irregular verbs (the irregular verb “draw” becomes the past participle “drawn”). Click here for some irregular verbs and their past participles. The variations of “to be” are: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.

So here we are, back at passive voice: The bridge was crushed by a giant chicken. (“to be verb” underlined; past To Be Verb Illustration Close Upparticiple bolded; passive verb in red; recipient in blue; doer in purple). We see a passive verb; we see that the subject of the sentence is the recipient. We now know the role each part of this sentence plays in constructing a sentence in passive voice. 

“To Be” Verbs and Expletive Constructions 

With that out of the way, we can talk about Strunk & White’s issue with placing “there” before a “to be” verb, i.e. we can talk about expletive constructions.

There was a bridge that was crushed by a giant chicken.

This sentence is particularly offensive because it uses both an expletive construction and passive voice. Here’s a sentence that doesn’t use passive voice but does use an expletive construction.

There were giant, hungry chicks under the bridge. (expletive construction bolded)

Some limit the problem of expletive constructions to a problem of conciseness, but I agree with S&W’s criticism of this type of wording. Fiction writers have to keep a reader’s attention and excessive use of expletive constructions lends to boring reading.

There was a house on the cliff. There were zombies at the door. They were hungry for brains.


The expletive constructions in these sentences add nothing to the story. Instead of making a bland observation, we could pepper things up by kicking that “there was/were” crutch. Find ways to tell the reader what’s happening and work on their emotions at the same time.

Hungering for brains, the zombies dragged their rotting feet across the yard to beat at the door of the cliff house.

The example sentences were obvious and extreme cases, but once you recognize expletive constructions, you’ll find them hiding out in your stories. (I’m sure I unconsciously employ expletive constructions at midnight when I’d rather be sleeping than writing.)

Using Expletive Constructions and Passive Voice in Fiction Writing

As fiction writers, we sacrifice rules to storytelling all the time. We all shrug at the green underlines decorating our manuscripts like festive tinsel. Repeated instances of “bad” grammar (the use of fragments, for instance) can even be associated with particular authors as stylistic devices. And so we may use passive voice and expletive constructions for emphasis or pacing.

Everyone says it and here I’ll obnoxiously repeat it: when writing fiction, don’t make blanket corrections to conform to the rules; correct thoughtfully, putting effective storytelling above all else. Amy illustrates how journalists use passive voice to great effect toward the end of her article.

Here’s a great cheat sheet for figuring out when it’s okay to use “to be” verbs and when you might be weakening your writing by using them as a crutch: Reducing the To Be Verb.

I hope this article helped you. I for one am now terrified of looking up all of the “to be” verbs in my manuscript.

4&20 Scraps is Moving (Plus The Woozies & Dizzies)

After miserably facing the 8,000 new and unread emails in my inbox, I’ve made a decision not to inundate the inboxes of those who may be following my blog. I’m moving my 4&20 Scraps (daily creative writing exercises) to my Tumblr which needs to be made useful anyway. Starting tomorrow, you can find them at my Tumblr page.

I say tomorrow because the flu is melting my brain right now. Oh what the heck, here’s a rambling scrap.


When I am sick I wear a hat,

(I call it my little hazmat hat)

And when the Woozies and Dizzies waltz in

To take my poor head out for a spin,

I pull it down to cover my eyes,

I trap them in, speed their demise.

But then they push down through my pores!

When will they leave, these terrible bores?

Woozies and Dizzies

4&20 Scraps: Tabitha

Tabitha gives her surroundings a cool gaze and presses her chin into her neck. What a self-satisfied turtle. She dares you to rustle her feathers, and those who don’t know her will be wary; those who do know she’d be the first to back off. Because she’s fear coated in deceptive spit and noise.  Trying to love her is just as difficult. She is finicky with affection. Put your arms around her and she’ll slip out like a soaped piglet. An ill-timed smile could rankle her. A split second of love given in small doses is a little more than she’ll accept. Tabitha is a jerk. Tabitha is my favorite.

Tabitha the Cat

4&20 Scraps: Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage SZWordsmith

In high school, there existed a muddled system of classification where your identity was announced by the location of your hangout spot during lunch. The older, popular kids sat at the coveted tables and benches–the civilized zone–bordering the quad; the freshman pressed back against the hedges along the tennis courts where they could stare wistfully at the popular kids; the “alternative” kids slouched beneath the yawning shade of a big tree at the opposite end of the quad. And by this system my friends and I were a fringe culture. One of many on the outskirts of civilized society.

Claiming our spot on the square concrete planter beneath a middling tree that hugged the farthest table and bench involved a meeting and a declaration of resolve. We were juniors and we deserved to move away from the tennis courts. It was our time.

Still, we knew better than to attempt an evolution–we were by no means popularis civis. We had no ins or claim to fame that might hasten the crumbling of our cocoons and spring us forth, bright and lovely and bench-ready.

At the start of each year, a rotation occurred. With the shucking of the previous year’s popular or otherwise seniors, each zone of classification was laid bare for a new turn. It was as if the Mad Hatter stood in the quad, screaming at us all to “change places!” And a madness did run like a network of exposed nerve endings across the schoolyard as we scrambled for a spot.

We stood our ground under that tree, as close to the benches as we thought we’d ever get. We stood our ground for two years though some of us occasionally mingled and tested new areas, new friends. But we’d come back to each other, to the haunt of our own peripheral species. A true minor vulgaris, I held our place day in and day out, fearing I’d be violently eaten by the flotsam and jetsam of the yard if I wandered.

On one of the last days of school in our senior year, old crusts that we were, experienced in the art of ditching and partying (because Toni and I went to that one kegger and almost had a drink), we decided to breach the divide, to wander from our side of the drinking pool and into restricted territory: the popular benches. The crowds always thinned out toward the end of the year and I remember that the benches seemed abandoned except for a thin smattering of popular kids. Perhaps this is what bolstered our confidence and propelled us from our spot. We sat at an empty table without a word and waited. Nothing happened. Nobody told us to move; nobody said we didn’t belong. So we stayed, monarch butterflies at the tail end of the monarchy.

4&20 Scraps: The Christmas Tree

4&20 Scraps is the start of my attempt to write something–anything–every day. I’m so wrapped up in revisions, it sometimes feels like I don’t get to create anything new anymore. I’m allowing myself the leeway to write about anything, be it a memory, something that happened during the day, a character study, so I don’t stress about how to fit my daily writing scrap into a box. It’s not going to be themed or prompt-based. This is a free-for-all. 

Please bear with me. I may be writing these at the end of a long day, after a strong drink, and/or when I feel like doing anything but writing, which happens more often than I care to admit. I might tell stories I’ll regret the next day because they say too much about my faults or my personal life. But it will be what it is and who I am.

I will, of course, also continue to post the usual stuff on this blog as well.


The Christmas Tree SZWordsmith

The winding 110 freeway was ink and hale. A cherry red Cadillac swam across Los Angeles and, inside the cabin, buzzed with something, maybe excitement delicately laced with fear.

I can’t remember who screamed, “I’m sitting in the front,” first, but, for once, it didn’t matter. We talked incessantly, sang Christmas songs with Natalie Cole, pretended the torment above our heads or the prospect ahead wasn’t terrifying. Mom’s face was a flickering light bulb–lit by encouraging smiles one minute, darkened by intense concentration the next. We slalomed down the exit ramp. The one we took on bright, sunny days. Pre-history. And before long halos spangled milkily on a guarded Pasadena street. The tires crunched over slick gravel and three pairs of feet swung out of the car to kick across the parking lot.

My sister and I breathed the cold scent of pine. They were perfect all of them, but that night we were in the business of choosing one winner. One to join our family of three, to stand tall and steady in our home during the long winter nights. We began the ritual which started with a solitary run down the aisles between the trees. I fell deeper into the trance, turning the crunch of gravel under my feet to the crunch of snow. Turning my short curly hair to long locks, my pony legs into the long, slender legs of a woman, smoothing my pimply skin to suppleness. When the deception was just right, before it was broken by the end of the aisle where I’d shoot out into the bright lights of the garden center and find my sister beside me, I was a princess in a quartz forest, lost but on the verge of discovery. Discovering what, I didn’t know.

The slick diamond dust gathered in the air around the three of us. We had found each other again. We had found our tree.

“This one,” said my mom to the bemused seller of holly and pine. He looked at us–my mom, my sister, me, not much different in height and build. Three pygmies pointing at a giant. “We want this one.”

The tree shuddered as it landed on the car top. We hadn’t thought to bring a tarp or even a sheet. Mom shrugged at the scratches in the red paint, the scratches on a car that was a gift to her from my dad, and herded us into the car.

The lacy edge of fear still lingering in the car now wrapped around us and scratched at our skin. We hushed the carolers on the radio and listened to the tree drag its branches across the roof–right to left to right to left–as we warily guided it through Eagle Rock. The drive up the steep climb of Wildwood Drive was the final test. When we parked in front of the door our smiles returned. While my sister ran into the house for a cup of cocoa, my mother and I stared down the hostage atop the car. My sister returned to supervise the task and we got to work.

Branches broke, fireworks of pine needles exploded in the hallway, sweat mingled with rain, but the tree was in the house, tip to trunk. And the way it went from the hallway to the tree stand is like magic in my memory. So I’ll say the winter wind lifted it off the floor and planted it there.

Not long ago, not years ago, my father drove us down the darkened streets while we sang carols. And not long ago not years ago he played the winter wind that, like magic, lifted our tree and stood it upright. But not that year or the years after.

My mom, my sister, and I stood around the tree awhile. And, once certain it was steady, we could return to our routine. We could stoke the fire and unpack the ornaments and be merry. Because we had done it. We had conquered Christmas. Just the three of us.