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Keep It Active

If the first rule of writing is Show, Don't Tell, the second should be Keep It Active. Active voice is what puts us in the middle of the action and allows us to feel. Passive voice is what gives us the feeling that someone is telling us a story that happened once upon a time.

Ray could suddenly feel the room widely circling around him before he started to wake up. He was feeling completely horrible. He hated feeling that way. Slowly rolling to his stomach and silently swinging one leg off the bed, he could use the floor as an anchor. The floor was solid and it would help to stop the dizziness. There was a good chance he would be very sick.

Exciting, huh? Okay, let's examine why this leaves us breathless with boredom.

Unnecessary words. Any word that doesn't add to your story detracts from it. Examine your prose for words like these: started to, began to, proceeded to, could, would, there was, there are, there is, there were, seemed to, tried to.

Inactive verbs. Watch for passive verbs, such as was, is, were, are. Replace them with active verbs, the most active and descriptive words you can think of.

-ing words. Verbs ending with "ing" are by nature more passive than those ending with "ed."

Adverbs. Those -ly words that precede a verb weaken it, not strengthen it. If your verb isn't strong enough to make the statement you want it to make, find a stronger verb.

Avoid Intensifiers. Very, really, totally, completely, truly and so on. Is completely empty any more empty?

Before we look at our example above, let's examine each of these concepts individually and see how they suck the power right out of our prose. Each of the following sentence pairs gives a poorly written sentence, followed by one that improves it.

It is the governor's plan to visit tomorrow. The governor plans to visit tomorrow.

John proceeded to dump sand on the castle. John dumped sand on the castle.

There were eight tiny reindeer leading Santa's sleigh. Eight tiny reindeer led Santa's sleigh.

Jack could hear laughter. Jack heard laughter.

Erin was sleeping. Erin slept.

Mike was very tired. Mike was exhausted. (Better yet: Exhaustion dripped through Mike's bones like slow-pouring molasses.)

She quickly and purposefully walked to Jarod and sharply hit his arm. She strode to Jarod and punched his arm.

Now, before we apply these concepts to our example paragraph above, give it a try yourself. But be advised, more than one answer is possible, and I took it a step further and omitted complete sentences that added no value and redesigned others for a more effective flow.

Ready? This is what I came up with:

The room circled around Ray. He rolled to his stomach and swung one leg off the bed, using the floor as an anchor. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew he would be sick.

Half as many words, twice the power. If you want additional instruction or explanation on this, study the previous discussion on "Say it Once, Say it Right."

Learning to change ineffective passive prose into active voice is one of the most important things you can do to increase the quality of your fiction.

About Sandy Tritt

Sandy Tritt is a writer, editor and speaker. The founder and CEO of Inspiration for Writers Inc, an editing and critiquing service for aspiring writers, she has edited hundreds of manuscripts. She is president emeritus of West Virginia Writers, Inc., the state’s largest writing organization, and has recently led workshops at the West Virginia Writers Conference, the West Virginia Book Festival, the Alabama Writers Conclave, and the Appalachian Writers Association (Bristol, Tennessee), among others. Sandy’s short stories and novels have received many awards and have been published in literary magazines and local journals such as Gambit, Confluence, Allegheny Echoes, Mountain Voices, The Northwestern, and Mountain Echoes, in which she was the July 2004 featured writer. In addition, she has published Everything I Know (Headline Books), Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook, and seven technical manuals (Phoenix Software, Atlanta, GA). She has ghostwritten one award-winning screen play and two memoirs. But more than anything, Sandy loves to teach the craft of writing, and is available to give her dynamic workshops at your writers conference.