To be or not to be – Why the ‘to be’ verb is not always passive

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Ah, the passive voice – much maligned by writers and critics alike. Search the internet for articles on the passive voice and you will find numerous exhortations to avoid it – Lazy writing! Too wordy! Overcomplicated!

Yes, the passive voice can be all of these (sometimes). But, sometimes it can be necessary or useful:

Mary was surprised. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by now.

The short paragraph above contains three passive clauses. You can spot them by looking for the to be verb + a past participle. You can also spot them by looking for the object-verb-subject structure. In the above example, there is no subject – which is why the passive voice is necessary.

Zombie

Look what happens when we add a subject:

Mary was surprised at the final balance on her account statement. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched by her on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by ZombieTraders by now.

Ugh. That is one ugly paragraph. Just by flipping to an active voice sentence structure – subject-verb-object – you can make it prettier:

The final balance on Mary’s account statement surprised her. She was certain that she had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. ZombieTraders should have compensated her by now.

Notice something about the above paragraph? Both ‘had’ and ‘had been’ make an appearance – but neither create a passive clause.

She had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday. In this case, we need to make the distinction between ‘had dispatched’ (past perfect tense of the verb, dispatch) and ‘had been (dispatched)’ (past perfect tense of the verb, to be). The word ‘had’ + a past participle (dispatched) is not by itself a red flag for passive voice. Only when the had is part of the ‘to be’ verb could it indicate passive voice. Mary had dispatched the zombie – not passive. The zombie had been dispatched by Mary – passive.

She had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. In this case, we need to make the distinction between <had been + past participle>  and <had been + continuous tense>. The ‘to be’ verb + another verb is not enough to indicate passive voice, the verb needs to be in the past participle form. I had been working on the zombie case – not passive.   The zombie case had been worked on by me – passive.

In summary:

  • Both criteria – the ‘to be’ verb AND a past participle – need to be  present for the passive voice to be generated.
  • Passive voice is necessary when the subject of a clause is absent.

And then:

  • There are instances where passive voice is present and unnecessary, but still preferable. This is typically the case when the writer wants to emphasis the object over the subject. Consider:

    The zombies were an abomination, created by the devil for his own perverted entertainment. (object-verb-subject structure, ‘to be’ verb + past participle – PASSIVE)

    vs

    The devil had created the abominable zombies for his own perverted entertainment. (subject-verb-object structure, no ‘to be’ verb – ACTIVE)

 

So, by all means be wary of the passive voice – but please don’t avoid it at all costs.

Hope that helps. Happy writing!

 

 Image courtesy of Daniel Hollister via Flickr Creative Commons
To be or not to be – Why the ‘to be’ verb is not always passive

Reversing Chekhov’s Gun – Why you can’t introduce new information in Act III

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

There is a well-worn narrative principle that often does the rounds in writer’s circles. You would have seen it on Twitter or quoted in blogs and books on writing. Chekhov, the Russian playwright and master of the modern short story, is credited with saying “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The principle is often invoked to caution writers against irrelevant details – if it has no impact on the plot, remove it. It is sage advice, but it has a counterpart that is often overlooked – a reversal of the idiom that I would like to phrase as:

If a rifle is going to be fired in the third act, in the first act it absolutely must be hanging on the wall. 

gun

This kind of philosophy harkens back to my school debating days (sigh. remember those? good times.) As the Third Opposition Speaker (which sounds like a key councillor role in a fictional dystopia, but is not), you couldn’t bring up new information – it wasn’t fair to raise new arguments or introduce new concepts that weren’t accessible to the other team for response (and rebuttal).

It’s the same with stories. If you have something major happen in your Third Act, you must introduce it – explicitly or through foreshadowing and hinting – in the First or Second Acts.

Introducing new characters (or other plot devices) too late in the piece is disingenuous. The reader enters the Third Act expecting that everything that is to transpire is a natural progression (likely or unlikely) from the components that have already been built and developed in earlier chapters. Bringing something new in feels like a cheat.

The most common transgression of ‘reverse Chekhov’s gun’ is the much maligned ‘Deus ex Machina’ (which sounds like an awesome futuristic sci fi, but is not (although 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’ deserves a mention…)).

As Wikipedia so eloquently elaborates, Deus ex Machina (literally, God in the Machine) is “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” The internet is full of examples.

But, more subtle transgressions are where minor characters or plot devices that make brief appearances in earlier chapters or Acts, suddenly and inexplicably become crucial elements that are central for tying up the loose ends of Act III.

If you find your story falling into the latter category, fear not! There is a solution (and it is simple):

Go back and add some foreshadowing and hinting in earlier chapters/acts. 

That junior intern that has a whole two lines of overlooked dialogue in that scene jammed into the middle of chapter four? The one that will end up saving the day with her personal rocket launcher project that isn’t even mentioned in the story? Go back and beef up her role. Hint at her ingenuity. Give us a glimpse of that awesome rocket launcher. Let her reappear throughout the story, maybe at the pinch points, or points of high tension. Keep her simmering in the back of our minds, so that her reappearance will be welcome and logical (even if it is a little surprising).

 

What about you? Have you introduced a Deus ex Machina in your WIP or are you committing a transgression against the reverse Chekhov’s gun? Offload your guilt in the comments… 🙂

 

Image courtesy of Don Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons
Reversing Chekhov’s Gun – Why you can’t introduce new information in Act III

Troubleshooting a Problematic Chapter: The issue isn’t where you think it is

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

So, I’m still working on this ‘editing journey’ with Divided Elements. It’s not so much a journey of ordered paths and clean lines as it is a 90s mosh pit that spits me in and out and jams me up against a whole slew of obstacles. But, in any case, I’m on it and I’m making some progress.

The hardest part has been writing new scenes to plug plot gaps and/or correct timelines.

This is for a number of reasons:

1) It pulls me out of full editor mode and into a quasi- (and much restrained) creative mode,

2) It demands consistency not only with what came before, but also what comes after, which entails a lot of reading and attention to detail, and

3) It happens in a kind of vacuum, outside of the original flow of writing. It’s not an organic process of creation, with the drafting momentum pushing it along a nice trajectory. It’s forced – a manipulation of a newer puzzle’s piece to fit an older puzzle – a shaving here and snipping there to jam it into place with (hopefully) some finesse that makes it appear seamless.

I’ve struggled with these scenes (hence the angst that’s poking through in the above para). I’ve written each of them close to ten times over. Nothing seemed to be working, no matter how many changes and revisions.

And then I realised that the problem wasn’t in the new scene, it was in the preceding one.

Remember those Bugs Bunny episodes where he would end up in some random place? He would poke his head up, look around, pull out his map and frown in concentration. And then the epiphany would arrive and he would realise his error – he should have taken that left, all the way back in Albuquerque.

It was the same with me. I realised my problem with the troublesome scene wasn’t in the preceding sentence or paragraph. It wasn’t in the scene at all. It came long before that, in my story’s metaphorical ‘Albuquerque’.

So instead of just manipulating the new puzzle piece, I also began to rearrange the older puzzle piece.

I went back to earlier scenes and chapters to add subtext and foreshadowing. I slightly tweaked the trajectory of earlier plotlines to allow a connecting piece that would fit the overall story better.

And it’s working.

So, if you’re in the same problem that I was, ask yourself:

1) What gap are you trying to fill with this new scene/chapter? 

2) What does it need to achieve? 

3) How do earlier scenes/chapters compromise this goal? 

4) How can you alter them to make for a smoother transition to the new scene?

I hope that helps. Good luck and happy writing/editing!

Troubleshooting a Problematic Chapter: The issue isn’t where you think it is