Monday, September 29, 2008

Packing A Punch

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. :)


C.R. Evers said...

Great examples! Well put!


Marcia said...

Good basic info that every writer needs. Great post!

Carrie Harris said...

Ditto ditto ditto. When I'm editing for someone, passive voice is one of the first things I look for!!!

Angela Ackerman said...

Awesome post. I know that sometimes it's okay to use 'was', but I always feel a niggle as I write it. Sometime too, I KNOW a passage is passive, yet I can't seem to figure out how to rewrite it. Thanks for the examples and the link!

Jacqui said...

Good thoughts. I'm guilty of "started to" and "decided to" as other words that take away your punch.

Tabitha said...

Thanks, all! Glad you liked it. :)

Jacqui - I forgot about the "started/decided to" thing. Bonus points to you for bringing it up. :)

Anne Spollen said...

I just started teaching a college writing class, and this is the EXACT topic we are talking about in style.

It's really just a bad habit that bogs down your writing -- great post!

PJ Hoover said...

So agree.
I catch stuff all the time in my writing and change it almost always. Sometimes the addition of the "is" seems to work, but in most cases not.
See ya!

Tabitha said...

Anne - how cool that you're teaching this now! Funny how the universe works sometimes. :) I agree that it's a bad habit, and one that can be fixed with the proper practice. :)

PJ - yeah, most cases "is" doesn't work. It's good to know those few cases where it does work, so you won't have to feel like you're beating your head against the wall. :)

Jim Danielson said...

Thanks for another great post.

Jim D

Tabitha said...

Glad you enjoyed it. :)

Keri Mikulski said...

I just taught this last night for my College Compostion 1 class. Very nice. :) If you don't mind, I'm going to print out your blog.

Unknown said...

Ugh. I've been trying to do more of this as I rewrite my book but...UGH! It's sometimes so hard!

Gottawrite Girl said...

Thanks, Tabitha. I like talking about this -- and how perfect and powerful a wee little noun-verb sentence can be. That's the most fun part of revising, the distillation process. When you know your writing is powerful as possible.

Tabitha said...

Keri - print away! :) It's more fun to share than to hoard. :)

Beth - yeah, it's really hard! To look at each and every sentence and figure out if it has the right construction...ugh. Ugh! But when it's done, it's oh-so-good! :)

GWG - writing is such a fun topic, isn't it? I could talk about it forever. But I won't, because then I can't get any writing done... :)

Gutsy Living said...

I love hearing all these points mentioned over and over. I just got back from SCWC (Southern Caifornia Writers' conference) in Irvine, CA and the summarized version of a talk on "Rewriting your Novel,"
Short paragraphs
Vivid action verbs
Try not to use "walk" use tip-toed, tread, stomp instead
Eliminate "was" it divorces the reader from the action
Eliminate ly and ing words.

Tabitha said...

Excellent!! Thanks for sharing! :)

Kelly Polark said...

Excellent examples, Tabitha! A wonderful reminder to doublecheck your story for passive voice!

Tabitha said...

Thanks!! :) So glad you stopped by! :)