Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Passive Stories

Passive voice and passive sentences ruin great plots. They lack power and authority. Timid writing bores readers. For this discussion, I lump passive sentences and passive voice under the single term of "passive sentence". 
Passive sentences do not engage readers. Active sentences engage readers. This leads to editors rejecting stories, and readers yawning. Then, authors are stumped as to why people don’t like their story containing a wonderful plot.
As I see it, three types of passive sentences sneak into stories. First, sentences that should seethe with action become passive. Second, authors choose the wrong subject for their sentences. Finally, descriptions slow down the action.
Fixing passive sentences filled with action, simply requires removing the form of be. For example,
Alice was chasing the rabbit.
Alice chased the rabbit.
Fixing passive action based sentences is easy. Fixing the second type of sentence is trickier, because the subject does not do any acting, so the verb cannot actively participate in the sentence.
Let’s look at an example.
Alice was shrunk by the potion.
Alice does not act, so this sentence cannot become active. She is acted upon. Here is the key question. What acted on Alice? Answer that question, and rewrite the sentence with the actor as the subject. Suddenly, you have an active sentence.
The potion acts on Alice, is the correct answer. Now, the rewrite becomes simple.
The potion shrank Alice.
Obviously, rewriting sentences is often more complex. Sometimes the actor is not obvious. The author may have to ponder one sentence for several seconds or even minutes before the actor reveals itself, but then the rewrite falls into place.
The most common time I justify the use of forms of be in a story is when there is a comparison. For example,
The tree was tall.
Absolutely no action happens in this sentence. However, this is a passive description of the scene. Adding action to the description engages the reader in a way the original sentence did not.
The tree scraped the sky.
Suddenly the passive sentence has action. We are showing the reader the tree's size instead of telling the read the tree is big.
Don't rationalize uses of "to be" by saying they're valid past progressives. Most past progressives and other uses of “to be” come across as a sloppy passive voice. Don’t do it. Don’t fall into the trap. Don’t rationalize. Take out the red pen and fix those sentences.
Now pick up your favorite story that never seems to find a home, and look for any forms of be. Can you remove them and liven up that story?

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