Award winning author Gail Gaymer Martin is the author of 40 novels with over one million books in print. She writes for Steeple Hill, Barbour Publishing, Writers Digest. Gail is a popular workshop presenter and keynote speaker across the U.S. Visit her website and her writing blog.
MAKING PASSIVE WRITING ACTIVE: When I talk about active writing, I’m not talking about passive voice. That’s a different animal all together. Active writing is important for every genre whether suspense, mysteries, romance, women’s fiction or westerns. Keeping your story filled with action-packed verbs helps the plot to move and creates a “page-turner.” Selecting explicit verbs and avoiding “deadwood” sentence structure also creates a moving, active plot. So let’s look at passive voice and then at passive writing and how to change it.
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, 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 when the subject is less important than the object. “Two million buffalo were killed by the Indians” is far more effective than “The Indians killed two million buffalo.” The focus here is on the buffalo and not who killed them.
CHANGING PASSIVE WRITING TO ACTIVE: 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. 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. 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.
She sashayed through the doorway, her importance punctuated with every sway of her hips.
Which sentence paints the more lively characterization? Obviously by changed walked to sashayed animates the character and allows the reader to truly see this character in action.
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. The reason the second sentence sounds better is because the words “there were” have no meaning. There isn’t the subject of the sentence. The subject and verb have been buried in the middle of the sentence. Look at this example:
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 with the subject in the forefront and an active verb. He soon repented his words.
SHOWING NOT TELLING: Most of the examples above illustrate the difference between showing and telling. We show when we use vivid words that brings 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. When 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 inactive and useless words, but remember active writing is not only action verb or descriptive passages. It is grabbing your reader by the hand and pulling them into your story with compelling and emotional narration and dialogue.
How is Brent Runyan supposed to reach his troubled nephew? The workaholic businessman knows nothing about providing a real home to the orphaned boy who needs him so much.
Special education teacher Molly Manning thinks the answer is threefold: love, time—and a dog. But Brent can barely let his nephew into his heart, let alone a golden retriever.
With his tragic past, Brent knows what can happen when you love anything: you can lose it. Until Molly asks this dad-in-training to start with the basics by letting her stay…forever.