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To be … and when not to be … in developing literary style. Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

The delight of a reader of literary fiction is often affected by a writer’s use of “to be” as an auxiliary verb. Authors need skill in recognizing what is best for their stories and the readers they want to engage. Intuition alone–without desire, hard-work experience, and talent–is rarely effective.

ACTIVE/PASSIVE voices (transitive verbs)
In active voice, action focuses on the doer of the action, while the passive voice focuses on the action itself.

Active voice requires two (or more) participants: the subject of the sentence doing the action, and a recipient of the action. Jake (subject) threw the ball (object of the action).

In passive voice, the object (recipient) of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. From above example: The ball (object of the action) was thrown by Jake (subject).The actor may not be stated but implied. Kennedy was shot (by Oswald). Active voice: Oswald shot Kennedy.

EXAMPLES
Active. A great flood formed the river. Flood (actor) the doer-subject, the river the recipient of the action.
Passive. The river was formed (by a great flood). River (subject) recipient of action. Flood, the doer.

Active: The committee approved the new policy.
Passive: The policy was approved by the committee.

PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Progressive tense shows an action still in progress and is formed with “to be” and the present participle. Example: The bus went fast. The bus was going fast [action in progress].

EXAMPLES
1) From classic literature.

The day was going fast now. Only the tops of the Gabilan mountains flamed with the light of the sun that had gone from the valley. A water snake slipped along on the pool, its head held up like a little periscope. The reeds jerked slightly in the current. Far off toward the highway a man shouted something, and another man shouted back. The sycamore limbs rustled under a little wind that died immediately. [Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men.]

2) Rewritten in passive voice (not by Steinbeck).

The day was going fast now. The tops of the mountains were flaming with sunlight that was leaving the valley. A water snake was slipping along on the pool, its head was up like a little periscope. The reeds were jerking slightly in the current. Far off toward the highway a man was shouting something, another man shouted back. The sycamore limbs were rustled under a little wind that died immediately.

GUIDANCE: The above example passages of active/passive have a different tone and quality of image transfer, brevity, and clarity. When you can say something in the active voice, don’t use passive voice. Active voice is direct, straight and easily understood. There are, however, times when the passive voice, not the active, is used: 1) when the doer of the action is not known (My bracelet was stolen.), 2) when the doer of the action in known by all (Orange juice is sold here.), 3) or where action is more important than the doer (Healthcare is an inherent right for children.), 4) and others.

MESSAGE
There is no right or wrong in creating fiction, only success or lack thereof in engaging the desired reader.

The use of forms of “to be” in fiction changes style of presentation: action, emphasis, clarity, writer’s thinking process, pacing, word count, and often significance.

Being aware of your passive/active writing can transform you, the writer, in life from an admiring fan sitting in an audience to a performer pleasing fans with great writing and storytelling.

Speaking Of The Dead by William H. Coles
From the award-winning short story "Speaking of the Dead" by William H. Coles available free with one click here: https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/original-stories-william-h-coles/speaking-of-the-dead/

Illustration by Betty Harper

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