Monday, January 17, 2011

Making Passive Writing Active by Gail Gaymer Martin

Good Manuscript Monday to you, dear readers. We like to dig into writing craft on this first day of the week. Grammar is a key element in good writing. Today we welcome Gail Gaymer Martin to discuss active vs. passive writing. There's something for everyone in this article. Enjoy!

Making Passive Writing Active*
Gail Gaymer Martin

Suspense, mysteries, and westerns are not the only genres that need action. Keeping your story filled with action-packed verbs helps move the plot 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.

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, and being are usually connected with passive voice. Still, writers should not totally exclude these verbs in their writing. The "to be" verbs are sometimes needed in predicate nominative and predicate adjective sentences, like, She was beautiful, He was quiet or They were soldiers.
Different forms of passive writing can dilute a good story. The overuse of predicate adjectives and nominatives, using weak or general verbs, using "deadwood" phrases, and telling not showing are all forms of writing that keeps the reader from feeling the action of the novel.

Predicate Nominatives and Adjectives
Obviously, showing is better than telling. When you use predicate nominatives and adjectives, use them when a description will not enhance the action or when descriptive language will slow the scene.

While predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives are useful at times, you can be far more affective and enhance the description by forgetting the "to be" verbs and creating word pictures that say even more. Let’s look at those three examples above:

Predicate adjective: She was beautiful.
Improved: Her angel face glowed in the sunlight while golden curls surrounded her cheeks like a halo.

Predicate adjective: He was quiet.
Improved: If she didn’t see him sitting there, he could have been a mouse in the corner, silent and cautious.

Predicate Nominative: They were soldiers.
Improved: They paraded into the room, their feet moving in procession, their uniform buttons glinting like their spit-polished boots.

Notice the lack of the "to be" verb (was and were) in each of the improved sentences. In each case, you can envision the person rather than just being told something about them. The improved version of these sentences are much more active than passive.

Explicit Verbs
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.

Deadwood Kills Action
Another writing problem is using "deadwood" phrases. These are words that 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, yet a more lively sentence.

Showing not telling
We show when we use vivid words that bring the scene to life. When our descriptions create word pictures, emotion and emphasis action rather than only telling the reader. He was angry, for example, creates no emotion, we cannot see the anger nor the action his anger elicits, and again the telltale "to be" verb is the culprit. He sprang from the chair, toppling it to the ground, and smashed his fist against the tabletop. Now that’s anger. We see it. We feel it. We react to it.

Active Writing
As you inject more action into your writing, remember that action is more than doing things and going places. If well-chosen active verbs are used to create vivid word pictures, internal thoughts can draw the reader into the story and create emotion as effectively as a car chase scene in a movie scene.

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, but remember that 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 story with compelling and emotional narration and dialogue.

*Originally posted on Gail Gaymer Martin’s site: in January, 2008. Used by permission.


To learn more about Gail and her books, visit her website here. Her book A Dad of His Own releases February 15, 2011 from Steeple Hill Love Inspired.

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