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]

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/passive.htm

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.

*Yawn*

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.