Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Writer Was Willing, but the Words Were Weak

Or, how many words starting with W can Renee cram into a cliché title?

There are these awful writing moments when I shy away from the keyboard. Everything will be rolling right along and then suddenly it'll all screech to a halt, my fingers refusing to type the word my brain says come next.

Because I have been taught, you see, to avoid these particular words at all costs. For they are the Plague-Bearers, the Harbingers of Doom, the Destroyers of Voice.

In reality, this halt is really more like a little skip of a dusty DVD. I pause, remind myself that all words are wonderful (and I can always fix them in revisions if they're not), and then I make myself keep going. I sometimes even defiantly pound out the letters of those scary words, just to stick it to the imaginary man glaring over my shoulder.

Just what are these horrible words that frighten me deep in the back of my writerly psyche?

Be verbs.

Such a simple, tiny word, be. It's cute and round and how could such a sweet little word be bad? I mean, sure, add an extra e to the end and then you've got bees, a terrifying swarm of flying stinging insects of death. But be? Who could be opposed to be?

I'll tell you who. People who don't understand passive voice.

Passive voice is killer of all writing, apparently, and if you use it, your novel is going to be less than worthless. It'll be boring and tired and awful and no one will ever want to read it. The only thing worse that slipping into passive voice is marinating your prose in adverbs.

It sounds like I'm being a little dramatic here, but seriously, people cling to the notion that you should avoid passive voice in your writing like it's a central tenet of their religion or the fight song of their favorite college football team. They get downright militant about the whole thing.

Me, I'm a little more flexible about these things. Can the use of passive voice make a sentence bulky and confusing when there's a much simpler and more direct way to phrase things? Sure. But so can a lot of other things.

Passive voice is, like just about any other tool in the writer's toolbox, something that can be used well or poorly, depending entirely on the skill of the writer. Passive voice can do things like help set a tone, mislead the reader, and shift the focus of a sentence. Or it can clutter everything up and make the whole damn thing impossible to read.

The thing you're looking at when you've got the latter is called an ID10T user error, to use one of Long-Suffering Husband's favorite techy phrases.

I think a lot of the reason people take such a hardline approach with passive voice is that they don't really understand it and we're hardwired to fear (and subsequently hate) that which we don't understand.

Which brings me back to the dreaded be verbs. Because even the people who teach this stuff don't always know what it means. You see, I beat my head against this particular bit of writing advice for years before really understanding it because way back in the day an English teacher told me that passive voice meant I'd used a be verb. I was tasked with memorizing a list of 23 be verbs (which to this day I can still recite*) and told to highlight and then eliminate every single one of the damn things.

SPOILER ALERT: Passive voice doesn't mean you used a be verb.

For those who don't know, passive voice is basically when the subject of the sentence isn't the one performing the verb. I could draw you pretty diagrams of various sentences to show you a visual representation of this type of construction. . .

Actually, no I couldn't. I haven't diagrammed a sentence in a very long time and I'm pretty sure I'd screw it up. But other people, people more interested in and/or who have more recently studied linguistics and such, could, in theory, draw you such diagrams.

Basically, in any given sentence, a thing happens. With active voice, the subject of the sentence does the thing. Janine killed Bob. With passive voice, the subject of the sentence has the thing done to them instead. Bob was killed.

There are a couple of tricks for recognizing passive voice. A popular one lately is this: can you add "by zombies" to the sentence and it still works? For example, if you look at the sentence Bob was killed, the zombie trick turns it into Bob was killed by zombies. That makes sense--and sounds like not a lot of fun for Bob, but he's dead either way so I imagine he's not very fussed about it--so that's passive voice.

This trick doesn't always work though, especially if you've already done it without realizing it. If I'd written the sentence Bob was killed by Janine and I just tried to tack on a "by zombies", it would end up Bob was killed by Janine by zombies and if I wasn't paying attention, I might think, "oh, that doesn't make sense, so my sentence must not be passive."

You can also try stripping your sentences down to the minimum and seeing if their meaning changes. Reduce the sentence to just the noun and the verb, without any embellishments or helpers or add-ons at all. Bob was killed becomes Bob killed.

Looks like Bob is a little confused. First he was dead and now he's a murder. Hey, Bob, at least you're not dead anymore. That's good news, right?

Oh, wait, Bob was dead and now he's not and he's killing people. Um. . . I think we might have just turned poor Bob into a zombie. . . Oops.

Moving on. This method isn't my favorite. While it's also potentially amusing, there are exceptions to the rule big enough to drive one of those extra wide house-moving trucks through. Plus, it can be annoying. I mean, the average sentence in fiction writing is 14-22 words. Reducing them all down to 2 or 3 words is tedious and just plain obnoxious. Plus you have to split up all your compound sentences in order for it to work. It just gets messy.

And another trick to recognizing passive voice, the one my poor old English teacher clung to as gospel, is to go hunting through your text for be verbs. This one is so popular because it's easy. Just do a global find or two (or 23) and presto, you've found all your passive sentences! Woohoo! In the Bob was killed example, a simple search for was will point right to it and let you know to rewrite your sentence.

But this one doesn't always work either. If I'd written Bob was hungry instead of Bob was killed, the be verb trick would yield a false positive. Bob was hungry isn't passive voice. But, in a particularly zealous fit of passive voice eradicating fervor, you might accidentally rewrite the sentence as something silly, like Bob hungered, and now we really have turned Bob into a zombie. . .

Yeah, zombies aren't the only ones who need brains. Apparently we writers have to have them on occasion as well.

The bottom line is that none of the "tricks" for identifying passive voice always work. Which is kind of good. Because passive voice serves its purpose and you wouldn't want to just stamp it out of existence everywhere. The zealots out there, as zealots are wont to do, have gotten so caught up in what they're looking for that they've forgotten why they're looking for it. The idea isn't the global eradication of passive voice just for the sake of some weird grammarian prejudice. What would that particular prejudice even be called? Voicism is already taken.

Instead, think of it this way: who wants to read about Bob anyway? He's just lying there being dead. His story is over. (Unless you zombified him, at which point maybe we do want to read about him after all.) Janine, the character who is going around killing the poor Bobs of the world, is the interesting one. She's the one with the agency, making the story happen. And that's the point. The main reason to make the sentence active instead of passive is to keep us focused on the characters who are actually doing things, rather than having things done to them.


*The list, in case you're curious, is this: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, could, should, would, can, may, might, must, will, and shall. Don't look at me like that. I didn't make up the list. I just memorized it and applied it to my writing for several years until someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about corrected me.

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