In a prior article we examined passive versus active writing with regards to things vs actions or events.
Now I’d like to consider another nuance with regards to passive vs active voice: That of the state of being.
Everything has state. And it is with the irregular verb “to be” that we most often establish state.
- The sky is grey.
- The monkey was screaming.
- The girls were dancing.
- The bridge was swaying.
To Be has a veritable plethora of variations of past, present, and future tense, and singular and plural and just a whole pile of combinations of those. But regardless of usage or variation, every instance of the verb To Be is used to establish state.
And that’s OK for things that have certain characteristics of being. Sometimes it’s acceptable to use “is” or “was” or “were” or the other variations of To Be when you have to get people, stuff or surroundings into a scene, into a scene and described.
- “The cliffs were higher than any he’d scaled before.” Here we’re simply trying to establish the state of these geological features of the scene. The cliffs aren’t doing anything aside from just being.
- “His hands and face were charcoal black from digging through the burned out husk of the cabin.” Again, his hands and face have state — the state of color — and we just want to get that known to the reader.
- “The car was destroyed. No amount of repair could return it to working order.” The car has an operational state here and it’s not good. It’s bad, destroyed in fact. We just need to let the world know this.
Sure there might be ways to write these descriptive sentences in the active voice, but I’ll say that some usage of passive voice can be allowed when, again, we’re just trying to establish state.
So in addition to the rule previously mentioned: “when we think of people or things in a story don’t think only of their state — think of what they will do, how they will act.” We have another heuristic: “When describing state, it’s okay to use small doses of passive voice to set the stage, primarily with settings or things that normally do not act or have behavior.”
- The cliffs were higher than any he’d scaled before. The climb to the top left him terrorized, his heart thumping in his chest, his wrists and knees trembling.
- His hands and face were charcoal black from digging through the burned out husk of the cabin. He’d tried to save it. Pail after pail he swept from the creek and tossed into the blaze. But the rotten roof and worm drilled timbers fed the fire that consumed the cabin.
- The car was destroyed. No amount of repair could return it to working order. She stared mesmerized as the great claw of the wrecking crane slammed down through the windows squeezing the top in its talon grasp. Up it lifted the car, the first car she’d ever owned. It swung the car over to the clapper where the crane released it in a spasm of mechanical glee. Down it slammed into the pit which then began to methodically crush her orange Ford Pinto into a yard square, iron trinket for the foundry.
Set the stage with state using “is”, “was” and “were”, and then follow it up with action.