To Not To Be: Eschewing Passivity-A Writing Prompt

Passive verbs are like Bilbo Baggins, (Paraphrased) “To be! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” (The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkein)  Though perfectly good words, they act as literary parasites sucking the life from our prose.

Recognize Literary Parasites
Wanted “TO BE”
DELETED or “RARELY” useful: “RARELY” useful:

“DELETED: Hunt these words in your prose and DELETE them with a sharp stick.

The Zombie Test

The Zombie Test taught me in a creative writing class provides a simple test for passive sentences.
Adding “by zombies” after the verb.
Example: Joan was kissed (by zombies). Disgusting, but it makes sense.
(If you like zombies go for it. I don’t judge.)
Example: The Zombies kissed Joan (by zombies). Still digusting, but it makes no sense.

“RARELY” useful.
(Case 1) When writing the first draft, it is often the philosophy to throw words at the blank screen until “THE END!” At that point, real work begins.
A Second Draft forges a book. Like a Sword; tempered your prose in fire and blood. (Plese do not stab people with sharp verbs. )
PRO TIP that can be used by anyone.
Try writing actively in a first draft. Deleting “to be” before writing it develops literary efficiency.
Real people use passive constructions in a dialog.
I’m = I am (to be)
It’s = It is (to be)
Use them as necessary. Dialog is about characterization.

The Prompt: write a piece of Flash Fiction or a brief article of no more than 500 words without using “to be” verbs.

Writing a short Flash Fiction piece or a paragraph provides a simple exercise and develops active literary muscles. My solution appears below:

My Solution to the No To Be verbs.

Women’s Magic by Frank Darbe ©

Ghana sat cross-legged in a circle of oak roots illuminated by a sunbeam holding a red rubber ball and five jacks. No memory of arrival touched her mind. No concern for leaving shadowed her heart.

She examined the objects in her hands. A red rubber ball nestled in her palm. Ghana squeezed and found the ball between hard and squishy, bouncy. The jacks, parts of a game from her great-grandmother’s storied childhood “before them computers and phones stole your mind.” And with spoke words, grandma appeared between two of the trees.

Ghana tilted her chin up and glanced down her nose, not comfortable with Grandma standing. “Really?”

Grandma entered the circle and sat cross-legged. “Never talk to me that way!”

She bounced the ball. “Sigh! This a dream?” 

“Why you think so?”

“Uh, sitting on the floor without your electric chair.”

“Dreamtime, not a dream. Learn the difference.”

Ghana tossed the ball and jacks in the dirt and walked off between the trees. Just like Bam, she sat cross-legged in a circle of oak roots, ivory die in one hand and five nubby bones in another.

Grandma smile and sipped her tea. “Hot chocolate, sweetheart?”

“Bones and dice, really?”

“The magic child.”


A cup of hot chocolate appeared beside her knee. “Knucklebones and dice, like jacks but old, child.”

“Like you?”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha, you tickle me green sometimes.”

“Another of your magic tricks, Grandma.”

“Leave if you think you can.”

Ghana knew better. Grandma talked about Dreamtime and her childhood. Talked about women’s magic old as time. Remembering sparked feelings, wonder, joy, awe.

“Why teach me magic, now?”

“Birthed three daughters and four sons. Two of my girls died in childbirth. My youngest, Sheila, disappeared with some traveling man and never came home. My sons fathered grandsons.  Thought I would die without passing the skills. Your mama said you started bleeding?”

“Menstruation, grandma.”

“People make up all kinds of words. Simple ones work best.”

Ghana faced palmed Grandma. “Yes, I bled. Why teach me now.”

“Doctor gave me six months and not good ones.”

Ghana dropped the knucklebones and threw her arms around her Grandmother. “No. No!”

“We come and go, hon. Life. Now, I pass it on.”

Ghana rubbed her face dry. “Women’s magic.”

“Throw the knucklebones, Sweetheart.”

Comment are closed.