by Kathleen Baldwin
Alas, poor WAS! Thou art cruelly misunderstood and murdered most foul by brutal editors and unknowing authors. When should you use the ruddy WAS thing and when should you toss it over a cliff? Is passive voice given a bad rap? Can it be used for good, or is it always evil?
My critique partner, Carole Fowkes, a brilliant horror and mystery author, suffered a vicious WAS-Wipe from an anthology editor at a publishing house. This naïve editor sent down an edict. “Behold, Thou shalt remove every instance of WAS.” And so, my diligent friend followed instructions, and the anthology went forth WAS-less.
For several weeks Carole labored under the assumption that the enemy of all good active writing must be the dastardly verb, ‘was.’ Finally, at my wit’s end, I grabbed her by the collar and shook that nonsense out of her head. “There is a use for was! WAS was invented for a reason.”
There. I just used was in an active sentence. Never mind that it constituted both the subject and the verb.
I will not bore you with grammar.
It is my considered opinion that grammar is like knitting—no fun to watch. The problem is, if one doesn’t understand the basics of either, one can end in a dreadful tangle. (Pardon my gratuitous use of a puppy.)
Nope. No boring grammar discussion here.
Instead, let’s talk about what works and techniques to keep your sentences and stories lively and active.
Today I had an unexpected run-in with passive voice. It happened in a scene wherein a friend, Georgie, interrupts my heroine with urgent news in the middle of the heroine’s first passionate kiss with the hero, Quentin. Take a look:
Our blissful haze of kissing explodes. Immediately I break into a run. Georgie and Quentin are following me, but that does not matter. I must race death, and at times like this I am faster than anyone might expect.
Did you spot a was?
Yet this passage feels passive. Let’s whip out a passive-voice cleaver and chop it to pieces. Put on your seat belts. Prepare for a messy ride through some hard-core sentence-butchery.
There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language. Some prepositions (not all) slow pacing and produce passivity. Here’s a list of twenty that tend to slow pacing. I’ve bolded the ten peskiest: above, along, around, as, at, before, behind, beside, between, by, from, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with, and within.
Stay alert to pesky little prepositions. Gauge their sneaky behavior in your sentences. Are they producing ‘be’ verbs? Do they slow your syntax flow? Did you want to slow it down?
In my sample sentence, we collide smack-dab into “of kissing.” That pesky preposition, of, slams on the brakes right before we get to the delightfully active word, explodes. On a side note, why didn’t I show that crucial emotional explosion? I want the reader to experience that sensation of pleasure bursting apart, right? Yes, I do. Let’s try to fix that, too.
The reader already observed them kissing in the preceding paragraph. So, we can rewrite it like this:
Our blissful haze explodes into a million glittering shards.
That’s better. More active and visual. Which brings us to the next problem…
I confess—I am the queen of ings.
Those dratted little devils! Ings are shifty little critters that often force you to add a ‘be’ verb, thereby convoluting a delightfully active verb into a languorous slug-like beetle.
Two ings haunt my example: kissing and following. Note: the new addition of glittering does not require a ‘be’ verb or a preposition to make it glitter in the example. Therefore, I grant permission for glittering to twirl across this sentence’s stage.
We got rid of the kissing ing already. Hooray! Not that it was much of a problem, but there’s definitely an issue with the next line: “Georgie and Quentin are following me, but that does not matter.” Following requires the be verb are in order to make sense. So we need to change following to follow.
While we’re at it, let’s remove ‘but that does not matter.’
Delving into the heroine’s thoughts during this urgent moment slows my curious readers. It compels them to ask, “Why does it not matter? Doesn’t she care if they are following her?” Yes, of course, she cares, but her race against death is more important.
We can change it to:
Georgie and Quentin follow hard on my heels, but I must race death.
Discussing time is almost always a passive act. I cringe, sheep-faced and scarlet-cheeked, that I wrote the next line. Go ahead laugh with loud guffaws. I deserve it.
“And at times like this, I am faster than one might expect.”
Really? Is she? My heroine stopped to make an aside to my reader about how “at times like this, she is faster than her frail figure might lead one to suspect.” Ha! At times like this, my dear, I think you ought to keep running as fast as possible.
The preposition ‘at’ ought to have given me pause, but two primary elements drag this line into a tarpit:
1. The generality of the statement weakens impact and dispels urgency. The reader may question, “At all times like this?” One may wonder how often do times like this occur in her life? Is this a daily incident?
2. Referencing time slows the reader and elicits a more reflective feel. Sometimes this is exactly what an author wants. Other times, as in my sample passage, it doesn’t work. (LOL, yes, I just used sometimes and other times. Here it works.)
Let’s take a look at the full edit:
Our blissful haze explodes into a million glittering shards. I break into a run. Georgie and Quentin follow hard on my heels, but I must race death. And that makes me faster than anyone expects.
Okay. That’s good enough for now. I’m sure I’ll tweak it more later. Let’s jump back to the problem of editors and authors thinking our poor innocent WAS is guilty of verboten passive poison.
The best way to illustrate this concept is with examples. Or perhaps I should say… Examples illustrate this concept the best way.
[Note the preposition and passive be verb in that first sentence. Neither is wrong. They simply focus the reader differently. The first sentence emphasizes the best way to illustrate the concept. The second almost buries the word concept and lets the reader know examples are coming. Which one do you think does the job best?]
All of the examples will be given in past tense for usage equivalency comparisons. Changing to present tense is a naturally more active approach, but we often need to write in third person past tense.
A spider named Charlotte spun an amazing web to save Wilbur the pig from slaughter.
[The focus here is on Charlotte spinning the web. Backloading the sentence with slaughter makes the reader realize the importance of what she did.]
Wilbur the pig was saved from slaughter when a spider named Charlotte spun an amazing web.
[WAS focuses our attention on Wilbur the pig being saved. We end with the intriguing idea of an amazing spider web.]
Which sentence did you like best? It may depend on what aspect you liked best about Charlotte’s Web.
Three more examples built around The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:
Dorothy splashed a pail of water on the Wicked Witch and killed her.
[The focus is on Dorothy’s action. Was is not needed.]
The Wicked Witch was killed when Dorothy splashed a pail of water at her.
[WAS changes the focus to the Wicked Witch being killed.]
A pail of water was tossed at the Wicked Witch by Dorothy. The water splashed over the witch and killed her.
[This WAS shifts the focus to the pail of water as the instrument of death. This is an example of how a news report can focus reader attention.]
Dorothy was splashing water at the witch.
[We see the bucket in Dorothy’s hands, and water is splashing at poor old Wicked.]
Dorothy splashed water at the witch.
[Using splashed avoids employing WAS, but it completes the action. The witch is now doused and melting or already melted. There is no WAS, but the action is over.]
Water was splashed at the witch by Dorothy.
[This is extremely passive. Focus is on the water having been thrown. The witch is now a boring waxy puddle, and actor credit is prepositionally tacked on the end.]
Suppose your hero or heroine sees a boy jumping off a cliff as she drives by. Do you write: The boy was jumping off a cliff. OR. The boy jumped off a cliff.
There is a distinction. This last wonderful example is provided by author, Patience Griffin, and came from her brilliant Penguin editor:
The man was digging a grave. OR. The man dug a grave. There’s a grave difference. LOL.
That concludes my case for the much-maligned WAS. It is up to you the jury to decide the fate of WAS. Cast your vote as a jury member.
Is WAS guilty of unforgivable passivity? Or will you grant WAS a conditional reprieve? Share your examples of effective or ineffective WAS usages in the comments! I'd love to see them.
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Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 600,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films. The series is currently in its third film option.
November 1-15, 2021, Kathleen will teach a course on The Truth About the Writing Life and Money, at Margie Lawson Writer’s Academy
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