All right, no one came out pointing fingers and calling me a no-talent hack, so we’ll keep this going.
Enough rules. Let’s just talk.
In my experience (and let’s be honest, it’s not all that vast), passive voice is one of the most misunderstood aspects of writing. Raise your hand if you’ve gotten slammed for passive voice on a message board for writing a sentence like, “The girl was running through the park.”
Imagine me raising my hand.
First, let’s talk about message boards for a moment. They’re a great place to put your writing out there for a quick critique. Most people who comment on critique boards are generous of spirit and talent, and they deserve your thanks, even if you don’t agree with them. They’re also usually amateurs (that’s not an insult — I’m an amateur), and that means you should take their advice with a grain of salt. (Take mine that way, too.)
It’s like using Wikipedia for research. It’s great for the quick-and-dirty, but it’s not all you should use, and it’s not always die hard accurate.
Okay, enough digressing.
Here’s a rule for you: the word was does not necessarily indicate passive voice.
If you slap the word “was” in front of another verb, it makes the past progressive tense. Like my example above, “The girl was running through the park.” You’ll find this most often when you have an action that’s interrupted. “The girl was running through the park when the masked man assaulted her.” There’s nothing passive about that sentence.
A better word to look for is “by.”
“I was hit by the car.” There’s a passive sentence for you.
“The car hit me.” There’s an active one.
Simplify. Personally, I find passive voice harder to write than active voice. Sometimes your brain gets so trained to put your protagonist as the subject of a sentence, you can’t seem to break out of that mold. Like we talked about yesterday, once you’re in your character’s head, it’s easy to start every sentence with “she” (or whatever), and it’s easy to start telling (instead of showing).
Take a look at this:
Sarah saw the car swerve in her direction. She was hit by the car before it skidded into the building.
At first glance, those sentences don’t seem too bad. Something is happening! There’s a car accident!
But it’s telling (in the first sentence) and passive (in the second).
Let’s try revising it this way:
The car swerved in Sarah’s direction, hitting her before skidding into the building.
There’s nothing really wrong with the first example. But we’ve got that new subject (yay!), and we’ve got an active sentence. Try to get in the habit of making whatever’s doing the acting the subject of your sentences, and you’ll avoid a ton of telling, and a ton of passive voice.
I love dialogue. I’m guilty of skimming passages of narrative just to find the dialogue. Done right, it should move a story forward and give your characters some personality.
First off, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue tags. Some people try never to use them. That’s silly. Sometimes you need them, and nothing is more frustrating than trying to find out who said what in a scene. Don’t use them if you don’t need them.
Here’s a whole passage without a single dialogue tag. Do you have any trouble figuring out who’s speaking?
His hand fell away as he backed up to fold his arms across his chest. Tattoos snaked across his biceps and down his forearms, shifting as his muscles moved under the skin. “For Christ’s sake, lady, you’re downtown. Nothing’s that—”
“Shut up.” Kate got in front of him. “You can’t treat her that way.”
Sarah stooped to shove her belongings back in her bag. “It’s fine, Kate. We’ll just—”
“It’s not fine!” Her friend was still facing down the man. “You’re lucky she’s not pressing charges.”
His face hardened, turning his eyes flinty. “All right. Get out of here, both of you.”
“Gladly.” Kate turned and put a hand on Sarah’s arm and started dragging her out of the shop. “Come on, Sar. Let’s get back to work.”
Action will only get you halfway. You can’t slap meaningless actions next to your dialogue, or that just gets exhausting. Do you ever find yourself reading a whole passage where characters are constantly running a hand through their hair, quirking an eyebrow, or other actions that go nowhere? Sometimes you need a tag. Be careful, though: using words other than “said” can also turn into a crutch.
“Just go to bed,” he snapped angrily.
“Just go to bed,” he said, turning away and raising a hand as if warding himself from her presence.
“Just go to bed!” he said. “I’m sick of listening to your mouth.”
All three get the same point across. The latter two give you a much better feel for the character. Would you have guessed that the speaker was impatient and rude from the first example?
When you’re revising and you find things like, “grumbled,” or, “hissed,” or “hollered,” take a look at the dialogue itself and see if it works on its own. Or see if there’s some way you can punch up the dialogue to eliminate the need for that tag.
I know I promised to talk about action scenes tonight, but I think I see some eyes misting over, so I’m going to save it for tomorrow night. Does anyone have an action scene they want picked apart for the blog? I’m sure you guys are sick of seeing my examples. Who wants to see some revisions in action?
Thanks for reading!