What is rare has value.
I could have written, Rarity has value, or better still, Rarity possesses value. I chose, instead, to draw attention to what I was saying—What is rare has value. Whether or not you understood the difference between passive and active voice, I would have caused you to pause on my statement.
Patterns in writing enhance its pace. When a writer breaks the pattern, readers pause. When used infrequently, creating rarity, the passive voice interrupts the flow with dramatic effect. A little strategy and we dose the to be verb with steroids.
Imagine reading, for example, a paragraph that recounts in active detail a string of killings that has been terrorizing a coastal village. The passage ends with: Martha was his latest victim. The break in pattern strikes our ear like a drum roll. We slow, and the news sinks in. This last killing hits harder than the immediate showing that preceded it.
What is rare has value. Remember, though—
If it isn’t rare, it isn’t valuable.
In some circumstances, when the object rather than the subject is more important, the passive voice can focus attention on the object.
Record numbers of automatic firearms were sold hours after news of the Florida night club shooting broke.
News of the Florida shooting is known. The public’s reaction isn’t. The passive structure emphasizes the sale of firearms.
The passive voice is the better choice when, and only when, it provides emphasis where emphasis serves the content.
When and only when shouldn’t need clarifying, and yet I reiterate. Human nature, you see, tends to gravitate toward easy alternatives. We’ll rationalize weak decisions rather than put in the work–and writing in the active voice is work. It’s particularly tedious when acquiring the skill. Be patient. Know that good writing means rewriting. Know also that the active voice is the foundation of good writing. Reinforce the skill before you use the passive voice as a technique. And always—always—know the reasons for the writing decisions you make. Don’t excuse your choices. Justify your choices in solid prose.
When the To Be Verb Isn’t Passive
Ellis delivers the flowers is an active construction. Ellis, the subject, is performing the action. Ellis was delivering the flowers is also active. Ellis is still performing the action.
Ellis delivers the flowers.
The flowers are delivered.
Ellis delivered the flowers.
The flowers were delivered.
Ellis will deliver the flowers.
The flowers will be delivered.
Ellis is delivering the flowers.
The flowers are being delivered.
Ellis was delivering the flowers.
The flowers were being delivered.
Ellis is going to deliver the flowers.
The flowers are going to be delivered.
Ellis has delivered the flowers.
The flowers have been delivered.
Ellis had delivered the flowers.
The flowers had been delivered.
Ellis has to deliver the flowers.
The flowers have to be delivered.
Ellis must deliver the flowers.
The flowers must be delivered.
Ellis delivers the flowers.
The flowers are delivered.
Some verb tenses incorporate a form of the to be verb. These indicate when the action occurs—and when is relevant to story. That said, a more economical phrasing that writes “around” verb tenses employing the to be verb is preferable.
Consider the following sentence.
He was standing and the phone was ringing.
The verbs was standing and was ringing are both active. Each has a subject performing the action. Both verbs are also past continuous, meaning that their actions began prior to this point and are ongoing. Still, though indicative of tense, the to be verb is empty, and empty words take up time and space. Can you capture the ongoing action without specifying ongoing action in verb tense? Absolutely.
- He stood by his desk when the phone rang.
- He stood by his desk and the phone rang.
The past tense revisions lose the to be verbs without losing meaning. The subject remains standing, and the phone will ring until he picks it up. Maybe he’s standing in front of a mirror, maybe he startles when the phone rings… Myriad options to show when action starts and stops abound. Choosing an alternative serves the writing’s pace and vitality.
As with the passive voice, though, the writer might want to stall his readers, as John le Carre did in his opening of The Constant Gardener.
The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart. He was standing. That much he afterwards remembered. He was standing and the internal phone was piping. He was reaching for something, he heard the piping so he checked himself in order to stretch down and fish the receiver off the desk and say, “Woodrow.” Or maybe, “Woodrow here.” And he certainly barked his name a bit, he had that memory for sure, of his voice sounding like someone else’s, and sounding stroppy: “Woodrow here,” his own perfectly decent name, but without the softening of his nickname Sandy, and snapped out as if he hated it, because the High Commissioner’s usual prayer meeting was slated to start in thirty minutes prompt, with Woodrow, as Head of Chancery, playing in-house moderator to a bunch of special-interest prima donnas, each of whom wanted sole possession of the High Commissioner’s heart and mind.
The novel opens with a lengthy paragraph, an unusual choice as far as novel openings go. Le Carre, nonetheless, plunges into the scene with bold confidence and defies another taboo—giving us an isolated character. But le Carre knows what he’s doing, and fifteen words into the story, when we learn the character’s name, we know—this is no ordinary day in the office for Sandy Woodrow.
Active verbs set the story’s tangent—news hit, Woodrow took it like a bullet—and we’re moving forward. Then,
He was standing… He was standing and the internal phone was piping… He was reaching for something…
We slow, almost to a stop. Why? Because Woodrow slowed. Because time, for Woodrow, is bloated, warped. The news that struck like a bullet has dislodged an inner mechanism. Woodrow is outside of events, trying to get his mind around them. We don’t know the details of the news, but we know its impact. Everything works together to convey its ominous, momentous impact—the lengthy paragraph, the isolated character, and the four past continuous to be verbs. Life prior to 9:30 on Monday morning, as Sandy Woodrow knew it, is over.
But instead of telling us the news was inconceivable, instead of telling us Woodrow is in shock or denial, instead of feeding us clichés—time seemed to stop, his world shattered—le Carre recreates Woodrow’s clock. We experience his slow motion attempt to piece together fragments, the futility of trying to recall what he had been doing.
Notice that every other verb beyond this effect is active past tense, aside from one additional past continuous verb.
…the High Commissioner’s usual prayer meeting was slated to start in thirty minutes prompt…
An oversight? One extra form of the to be verb in 172 words perhaps doesn’t matter. Think again. Writers of le Carre’s caliber choose every jot and tittle. He could have easily gone with a modifying phrase—
…the High Commissioner’s usual prayer meeting, slated to start in thirty minutes prompt…
Look back at the opening paragraph, though. Of the 172 words, 91 belong to a single sentence, a convolution of phrases and clauses. Le Carre breaches his third taboo, made successful, in part, by the passive verb. We travel Woodrow’s tortured thoughts without becoming mired, and the passive verb was slated adds to the banality of his focus. We have the sense that Woodrow is locked-in, and yet the pace quickens, as one thought boomerangs into the next.
Nothing in writing, as you see in this example, is taboo. Rules illuminate what works. Learn the tools of the trade, master the active voice, and see your writing flourish. And once you’ve gained a working knowledge of writing’s basic tenets, by all means, break the bonds. Write something we haven’t read before.
If it serves the writing, it serves the reader.