Suspense, mysteries, and westerns aren’t the only genres that need action. Keeping your story filled with action-packed verbs helps the plot to move and helps create a page-turner. Passive voice is only one kind of inactive writing. Selecting inexplicit verbs and deadwood sentence structure also stops authors form creating a moving, active story.
The English class definition of passive voice is exchanging the positions of the subject and the object in a sentence. In active voice, the subject is doer; it acts on something. Example: The child picked up his toy. In passive voice, the subject receives the action. Ex: The toy was pickedup by the child. Or “The note was signed by him” rather than “He signed the note.” In most cases, the subject should carry the action, but on occasion when who did it isn’t as important as what was done, then use the passive. “Twenty size children were injured in a school bus accident.”
Notice the word “was” in the first example. The “to be” verbs, such as: is, was, are, were, be, been, are usually connected with passive voice. Still, writers should not totally exclude these verbs in their writing. The “to be” verbs are often needed in predicate nominative and predicate adjective sentences, like, “She was beautiful” or “He was quiet. They were soldiers.” Though the author is smarter to show her beauty (Her beauty touched him) and show his quietness His silence disturbed her). When those ideas are not the focus of the sentence but only a lead in to something more important, then use the passive voice. Still an author should avoid passive voice when possible.
Notice the difference in the header—passive voice vs. passive writing. Different forms of passive writing can dilute a good story. Using weak or general verbs, using “deadwood” phrases, and the overuse of predicate adjectives are all forms of writing that keeps the reader from feeling the action of the novel.
Using explicit verbs is an excellent way to improve writing. Rather than say she walked through the doorway, try a word that better describes her movement: bolted, dashed, charged, paraded, moseyed, sashayed, meandered, ambled, glided. Each of these verbs creates a different word picture than the unspecific action of “to walk.”
Compare these two sentences. She walked through the doorway with her nose in the air or She sashayed through the doorway, her importance flagging her audience with every sway of her hips. Which sentence paints the more vivid characterization?
Deadwood Kills Action
Another writing problem is using “deadwood” phrases. Some words add nothing to the sentence except length. In Strunk and White’s, “The Elements of Style,” the authors use these examples: “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” compared to “Dead leaves covered the ground.” Notice fewer words and a more lively sentence. Another example is: “It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.” Removing all the “deadwood” from this sentence gives a clear, concise meaning. “He soon repented his words.”
Predicate adjectives, like “he looked concerned,” have their place, but a sentence with the same meaning comes alive and pulls the reader along by using active description as in the excerpt from Upon a Midnight Clear. “He tilted his head, his face taut with emotion. She wanted to touch his unshaven cheeks with her palms and kiss the worry from his eyes. A worry she knew was for her and not for himself. Everything in her cried out to tell him, but she pushed the urge deep inside her, praying this time the pangs would stay there.” You can easily see the difference is significant. The first tells he is concerned while the second example shows his concern and how it affects the other character.
As you inject more action into your writing, remember it isn’t only doing things and going places. If well-chosen active verbs are used to create vivid word pictures, internal thoughts can be moving and draw the reader into the story as effectively as a car chase scene in a movie.
Improve your writing by avoiding the straight predicate adjectives, by removing the “deadwood” from your sentences, and by selecting the most vivid, descriptive verb to show action. Active writing is even more than using an action verb or filling the narration with descriptive passages. It is grabbing your reader by the hand and pulling them into your plot with compelling and moving narration and dialogue.
©Gail Gaymer Martin 2014