What’s the point of writing a story? Just to write it? Or do we want to create a lasting impression on our readers? Yeah, that sounds right. Then how do we do that? Well, you could create a complicated, eventful plot with breakneck pacing. Or, characters that don’t stop moving from cover to cover.
Even with all that, you could still bore your reader to tears if your story is filled with passive prose.
Active prose pack a bigger punch than passive. By “active,” I mean verbs. By “passive,” I mean the way the verb is used. When prose is passive, the subject gets the action that’s expressed in the verb. In other words, the sentence is structured backwards. I.E., “The sign was hit by the car” should be “The car hit the sign.”
Which brings up the question of “was.” Many writers assume the word “was” is always passive. But it's not. Not always, anyway. It’s simply a way to express verb tense, and sometimes is written passively. Ink Fever has a good post on this, so rather than reinvent the wheel I will just send you there. :)
So, how does a sentence make an impact on the reader? It’s where the focus is. If a sentence focuses on its strength, it has great impact. If it doesn’t, it fizzles. For example, I’ve seen many manuscripts contain “gave a...” phrases. As in, “She gave him a shy smile” or “I gave him a push.” Is the focus on the strongest part of these sentences? Let’s reword them and see what happens:
1) She gave him a shy smile.
She smiled at him, staring at the ground as she tried to cover her scarlet cheeks.
2) I gave him a push.
I pushed him, giggling, and almost fell over.
Which variation draws you in and creates a more vivid picture? The one without “gave,” right? “Gave” isn’t a very strong verb. It doesn’t paint a clear picture, and doesn’t have a big impact on the reader. In fact, it’s restructuring the sentence such that the stronger verbs, smile and push, are turned into nouns. This weakens the sentence, thus reducing the impact it has on the reader.
It’s also classic telling – we discussed how showing is action-oriented in a previous post. There is much cross-over with active prose and showing. It’s all about the characters doing something, where the focus of the sentence is on the verb, or the action that the character is taking. The action in “gave a push” is still pushing, even though the verb is “gave.”
Let’s examine a few more examples:
She gave a strong kick. -> She kicked hard.
There were three dogs running in the park. -> Three dogs ran through the park.
Amy could feel an ant crawling up her arm. -> A tickle crept up Amy’s arm. An ant?
She quickly walked down the hall. -> She strode down the hall.
He hit Mike’s arm hard. -> He punched Mike’s arm.
It made a loud, cracking sound. -> It cracked, the sound echoing off the walls.
As long as your sentences are structured such that the action expressed in the sentence is coming through the verb, you’ve got active prose. And, you’ve got happy readers. :)