Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writers Take Action and Unite!

Yes, you all heard me. We must unite against the evil forces known as Passive Verbs! I’m convinced that they’re out to invade and infest every fantasy writer’s written world. And once they’ve crept in, it’s no easy task getting rid of them.

I'm serious.

These last few days I’ve gone back over some of my writings and realized, for the first time, how much I depend on the word “was”. Curious as only a writer can be, I decided to search Song of the Daystar and see how many times the word “was” showed up. Do you want to know what I found?

It showed up 839 times.

Yep, you read that right. 839 times!!! That’s a big number, no matter how you look at it. And to make matters worse, that was AFTER I’d revised it to exclude some of those nasty “W” words.

What am I doing wrong? Well, nothing really. I’m writing my story and that’s certainly not a sin of any kind. I’m developing characters… I’m fleshing out scenes… actually, I’m just about finished with the entire rewrite! That’s not bad at all.

But then I went and looked up the word "Passive" in the dictionary, and this is what I found.

Passive: –adjective

1. not reacting visibly to something that might be expected to produce manifestations of an emotion or feeling

2. not participating readily or actively; inactive: a passive member of a committee.

3. not involving visible reaction or active participation: to play a passive role.

(and my personal favorite)

4. influenced, acted upon, or affected by some external force, cause, or agency; being the object of action rather than causing action ( opposed to active).

I’m sure many of you have heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Passive writing is notorious for “telling”.  But how does one distinguish between Passive writing and Active writing?

The differences are usually in the sentence structure and the verbs. And sometimes the difference is simply between whether or not you took on the roll of narrator in you story, or whether you let your character find things out for himself.

Here’s an example of a very passive sentence from Song of the Daystar:

The Kitchen was in morning disarray.

Let me tell you now, it took a long time for me to figure out how to revise that sentence because… well, nothing seemed wrong with it. After all, it tells us exactly what the kitchen is like.

But that’s just it; it tells us. We don’t really know what the character is seeing because we’ve already been told what is going on.

As difficult as it was, I finally got rid of it completely in favor of an action scene. I like the new version much better.

Here’s the rewrite:

“Excuse me.”

Curron stepped aside to let the serving girl pass. She glanced at him, smiled, and hurried down the hall. A boy followed her out, pushing through the kitchen door and unintentionally shoving Curron back again.

“Sorry,” the boy mumbled.  He dipped his head slightly, and rushed off balancing a precarious tray of water glasses.

Curron glanced after them and back at the kitchen door. It sounded like a bunch of wild animals had been loosed inside the palace and had decided to take residence in the kitchen.

Come on. You’ve got to do this… You’ve come this far already.

He took a deep breath, pushed the door open…

And entered utter chaos.

People ran hither and thither carrying trays and brandishing spoons or soup pots. Another serving boy brushed past him with an empty tray and nearly knocked him over. “Hey, watcha’ doin’? Ya wanna get run down? Get outa’ here, page!” And before Curron could say a word, the boy disappeared in the flurry of bodies.

Now this scene flows a lot better and is written so that my character is experiencing the disarray of the kitchen… and so is the reader. (It also adds to the word count, if you’ve set yourself a specific WC goal. :D)

To make it short and sweet, Active voice powerfully moves your character through the scene and into the next, and it gives the reader a sense of how the character fits in the scene. Passive voice just doesn’t do that.

That said, Passive Voice does have its place in fiction writing. To quote an article from Christian Miles:

there are only two situations where it should be used.

1. When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The abandoned vehicle was apparently found by the Sheriff during the early morning hours.

2. When the character in the situation is not important: The rainbow could be observed by all after the thunderstorm.

If you identify a section of passive voice in your writing consider revising it. Your reader can’t really experience things if they are backward.

So, to sum all of that up, passive voice is when your character is being acted upon by the subject: The airplane was driven by Joe. Active voice is when your character is acting on the subject: Joe drove the airplane.

(For more info, you should totally go check out this article. It is very enlightening. ;-) )

So, now that that’s out of the way, who’s going to help me take action? I believe it’s time to execute and/or banish the word “Was” from our writings. After all, “Actions speak louder than words” (or in this case, passive verbs). Let’s rid ourselves of these evil passive verbs and phrases such as “was”, “were”, “has been”, and “have been”. (And I’m sure there are more, but my brain just decided to go on the fritz.)

It’s time to take action!

(End of Rant.  :D )


Galadriel said...

But what if the story is written in past tense?
He was asleep when I found him...

Eldra said...

Wow. That's a lot of times to use the word "was." How many pages was that over?
(And now I'm curious as to how many times I've done the same thing...)

~God Bless~

Star-Dreamer said...

Eldra, yes it is a lot of times! I was just a bit horrified.. (and there I go using the word again! *shakes head*) But when I did the search I covered the entire document so... 133 pages without double space.

Galadriel, it depends on your POV. I use Third Person Omnicient a lot, but I go ahead and leave "was" in when I use it in dialogue. However, it is better to try and use a more active verb or verb phrase when writing in this pov.

If you are writing in first person, that is a completely different story. Then you are basically telling the story as if you are ok; the passive vs active argument does not apply nearly as strong to first person as it does to third person, so it's probably ok to go ahead and use the word "was" when it shows up. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

I made a mistake in my last comment:

"Then you are basically telling the story as if you are ok;" should have been, "Then you are basically telling the story as if you are the character."

DID NOT mean to confuse anyone there!

Gillian said...

That was very interesting. I had not thought about how many times I used the word "was" in my sentences. And you are right, it changes the tone of the story, telling the reader rather than showing! Yes, I agree! Let us banish all such passive verbs and phrases from our writing forever!

Merriette said...

All right, you have convinced me. At least in the story which I began writing today for your story contest I am avoiding passive verbs as much as I can in the narration. It invades the dialog in great numbers, though, I fear. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

Merriette, that's ok! I'm afraid to say that the word "was" loves to invade my dialog too! :)