Writer Wednesday: Keep the Action

When I was in grade 9, I distinctly remember a poster in my English class that listed writing faux-pas that actually committed the transgression.  It was a creative way to teach rules, and it worked, because I still remember them.

One that has really stuck with me is “The passive voice should never be used.”

passive voice

Why is it so important to use active voice over passive voice?

Let’s back up a bit and explain the difference.  For example, you might write: “He was propelled into the fight.”  Passive voice.  The key here is “was”.  The action is happening to him, instead of being caused by him.  In this case, it’s better to write “His friend propelled him into the fight.” or “He stumbled into the fight.”  I came across an interesting way to tell if you’ve used the passive voice: if you can add “by zombies” to the end of your sentence, you’ve used it.

So why is it important you ask? Look at the two examples above.  Which one better immerses the reader into the action? Active voice ensures your reader will feel right there, in the middle of the story.  Even if the narrative isn’t actual “action”, passive voice can slow down the momentum of the story.

Another related story-dragger is flashback.  Now I’m not saying flashback can’t be a super useful tool in writing, but we need to be careful how much we use it.  Are we writing a scene in flashback because we suddenly realized a character should have had such-and-such an encounter three chapters back and we don’t feel like going back and grafting it into the story?  I’ve read and edited too many books where an author wrote a flashback where a here-and-now scene should have been.

It comes down to “Show, don’t tell”.  And I think we can take it a step further: when it comes to your characters, Do, don’t Be.  It makes all the difference between a reader living your story, or simply reading it.

4 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Keep the Action”

  1. “Show, Don’t Tell” is incredibly important advice. The worst is when writers have the ‘showing’ contradict the ‘telling’. If we’re TOLD that your hero is brave and fearless, but SHOWN that he constantly compromises his integrity to avoid trouble, then you need to go and re-edit.

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