Let’s talk about our activity levels, shall we?
Obesity, as I’m constantly being reminded every time I turn on my radio, is one of the top problems facing America’s people today. It comes largely from a sedentary lifestyle, a passive engagement in activity.
Okay, then let’s talk about the darker side of that problem: fat writing.
Fat writing, like fat people, suffers from inactivity more than anything. Just as an obese person lives on a diet of junk food, fast food, and various things you can find fried at the county fair, so chubby writing exists on a steady and corroding diet of passive tense. Tossing back any form of “to be” adds ten pounds to your sentence, making it slow and clunky.
Check out these two paragraphs. The first one is from my book, The Haunted, which at the time of this writing is in its second straight month on amazon.com’s bestselling horror:
Then, just as he felt himself about to give in, about to lose himself in the irrational fear (and what other kind of fear was there but the irrational, for rationality fled in the face of terror, the ability to be a thinking human being ran before the onslaught of horror), his fingers felt the cool links of the chain. He grabbed it like a man about to fall off a high cliff would grab a tethering line.
Nice, huh? It moves forward, actively and resolutely. It’s a decent example of perfectly weighted writing. But add just a few junk-food “to be” words, and see what happens:
Then, just as he was about to feel like he was about to give in, about to be lost himself in the irrational fear (and what other kind of fear was there but the irrational, for to be rational was something that would flee if it was faced by terror, the ability to be a thinking human being would have run before terror which was like an onslaught of horror), his fingers were able to feel the cool links of the chain. He was going to hold it like a man who was about to fall off a cliff and was going to grab a line that would tether him.
Wow. Chubby writing. Worse, this writing is downright riddled with lard and excess weight.
Writing should involve the reader. It should activate the reader’s passions, and engage the audience’s senses. This cannot occur if the writer insists on turning verbs into adverbs or nouns by overusing various forms of the word “to be.” Passive writing is good for one thing: to avoid blame. Thus, when my mother burst in on me as a child and asked what had happened to the cookie jar, my answer was, “It was broken.” Not “I broke it.” No. “It was broken.” That way the facts were presented in the dullest manner possible, and there was no specific actor—and thus no one who could be grounded or have dessert rights taken from him.
But though good for avoiding blame for broken cookie jars and (in extreme cases if you are BP) for pumping millions of gallons of oil into otherwise clean water, overuse of passive voice absolutely wrecks prose. Particularly when you are writing a thriller or horror piece, you want your prose to be a driving force, to push the reader from page to page, to grab them and drag them mentally through the book without releasing them for so much as an instant. Your goal should be for your readers’ loved ones to find your readers’ dead bodies, dehydrated, malnourished, and with exploded bladders because they just couldn’t stop reading.
Passive tense doesn’t do that. Passive tense is more like a butler standing at your side as you read and asking in a polite and insistent voice if perhaps you might not be better suited doing something else. Something more active. More interesting. Like fixing the garbage disposal, perhaps. Or going to the bathroom.
You get the picture, right? If not, I’ll just sum it up for you here:
Passive voice = bad.
Active voice = good.
Thus endeth the lesson.
Michaelbrent Collings is a novelist and screenwriter. He has written numerous bestsellers, including The Loon, Rising Fears, and the #1 horror and sci-fi novel RUN. He also writes YA fiction, including the bestselling Billy: Messenger of Powers.
He hopes someday to develop superpowers, or, if that is out of the question, then at least to get a cool robot arm. You can follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings or check out his website at http://michaelbrentcollings.com