Storytelling in Action

Suspense, mysteries, and westerns are not the only genres that need action. Keeping your story filled with action-packed verbs helps the plot to move forward and creates a “page-turner.” Passive voice is only one kind of inactive writing. Selecting inexplicit verbs and “deadwood” sentence structure also keeps you from creating a moving, active plot.

Passive Voice

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 does something. In passive voice, the subject receives the action. “The note was signed by him” rather than “He signed the note.” In most cases, the subject should carry the action.

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, such as; She was beautiful. He was quiet. They were soldiers. But authors are smarter to bring the idea to life using active verbs than predicate nominative or adjectives. Instead use: Her beauty touched him. His silence disturbed her. The soliders marched passed. The more passive phrases work when the ideas are not the focus of the sentence but only a lead in to something more important. Still an author is smart to avoid passive voice when possible.

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 saying 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.” The door swung opened and the cowboy moseyed into the saloon, his hand resting on the trigger of his Colt 45. The word mosey gives a specific image, a man sure of himself, confident, and ready for trouble.

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? A vivid verb creates an word picture that can trigger emotion.

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.” Think of it this way, There were tons of flowers in the garden. What is the subject? Flowers. What is There were? Nothing. That is your deadwood. If you change it to: A multitude of flowers bloomed in the garden. You’ve now used an active verb, bloomed, rather than the inactive verb, were. 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.” In most cases, words like were, was, is, and are—the to-be verbs—are the culprits in these sentences.

Predicate Adjectives
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. He tilted his head, his brow furrowed and his face filled 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.” Notice in this way, the author is showing and not telling.

Active Writing
As you inject more action into your writing, remember action is not just doing things and going places. It refers to purposeful dialogue, action and even introspection that comes to life through the choice of words and description that moves the story forward. Well-chosen active verbs can create vivid word pictures so that internal thoughts can be as riveting to the reader as a car chase. Example of internal thought: The memory burned his cheek as much as the slap that stung his thoughts. The heat licked like fire to his brain and scorched his heart. Mothers were supposed to love the children not scar them. This introspection comes to life with the choice of verbs, and in this case the verbs are connected to the concept of fire so the picture is even more vivid.

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 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 2015

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