On one writers board I frequent, people repeatedly warn about using forms of the verb “to be” because that would be “passive voice” and that’s bad writing. Every time I read that, my blood pressure rises a little. Allow me to differentiate between passive voice, emphasis on action, and the delights of characters who shape situations rather than just respond to them.
Warning: Grammar ahead
The terms “active voice” and “passive voice” apply only to transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that pass action from an actor to a receiver. In an active voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the actor. For example, in “John hit the ball,” “John” is both the subject of the sentence and the one who’s doing the hitting. In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. For example, in “The ball was hit by John,” “ball” is the subject and is being hit.
Passive voice is useful if you want to hide the doer because you can omit the “by” phrase (The ball was hit). It’s also useful if the receiver of the action is more important than the doer (Ross Hall was built…). However, passive voice sentences are slightly but measurably slower to read and harder to comprehend.
The verb “to be” is not a transitive verb because it doesn’t transmit action, so by itself, it’s neither active nor passive. You see it as an auxiliary to “hit” to form the passive voice in “The ball was hit by John,” but as I say, by itself, no form of “to be” is active or passive. So you can’t rule out using it by calling it “passive voice.”
Emphasis on Action
Instead, “to be” conveys a state of being. “He is tall.” “The room was dark.” Overuse of “to be” creates a problem not because it’s passive voice but because there’s no action, not even action passively expressed. The story isn’t moving along. The situation is static.
That’s why advice about writing description often says to do it in action. Don’t write “the room was dark” but “he put out his hands to keep from tripping in the coal dark room.” At the very least, use a livelier verb than “was.” For instance, write “Dark lay thick across the doorway.” I’m not good with description in general, so you have my permission to laugh at those examples, but you get the idea.
Active vs. passive characters
Another sort of “passive” has to do with passive characters. Once again, this has nothing to do with passive voice. Rather, it refers to characters, especially main characters, who react to events rather than shaping them. By and large, we cheer for active characters more than passive ones, who tend to be seen as victims.
We admire characters who persist and get up to try again after they’re knocked down. We like them to have a goal they’re struggling to reach, so we can hope along with them.
Mind you, as with everything else, that’s not absolute. You can undoubtedly think of passive characters whose stories you enjoyed. But usually, we like active characters.
So that’s my rant. Those are three different things that well-meaning but wrong advisers lump together when they tell someone to avoid the verb “to be” at all costs.