How To Be—or Not to Be—An Active Writer

~This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of FIRST DRAFT, the newsletter of Sisters in Crimes’ Guppy Chapter. Susan Evans, Editor.~

Poor Hamlet. On paper, he had everything an up and coming young man could want: strong father figure, loving mother, loyal friend, hot girlfriend, good education, royal title.

But as those of us who write crime fiction know, one good murder can derail someone’s bright future. In the backstory, Hamlet was charming, carefree and second in line to the throne, but when we met him in Act I, he was hollow-eyed and hounded by a ghost to get off his duff and get some royal vengeance, already.

Had he made sharp, strong choices to avenge the king, Hamlet would have lived on in literary glory as a proactive prince. Instead, he vacillated and rationalized all over Denmark and beyond. His “to be” soliloquy may be memorable art, but action was not Hamlet’s forte.

So how does Shakespeare’s great tragedy relate to mystery writers? Imagine a writer who has all the vital prerequisites for a corking good mystery: a brave protagonist, an intriguing crime, an interesting setting, a compelling theme, maybe even a clever twist or two.

Now imagine that, like Hamlet, the writer wastes all that promise by making dull, indecisive writing choices.

~ What is active writing?

Writers tell stories through a series of sentences. A writer chooses a sentence structure and specific words to convey an idea or show an action. An author who wants to hold a reader’s interest will learn to write compelling sentences that use language efficiently and add power to those sentences by imbedding them with sharp, descriptive words.

Strong structure combined with dynamic word choices will create active writing.

PART 1—Active vs. Passive: How to construct a strong sentence

A sentence written in the active voice uses the basic subject-verb-object structure. You can also think of active voice as three W’s: who did what to whom.

Example: My neighbor beat my dog.

A passive voice version of this sentence reverses that order to object-verb-subject. The three W’s are also shifted: who had what done to them by whom.

Example: My dog was beaten by my neighbor.

These are simple examples for a purpose. Who did what to whom is easy to repeat and remember. Who had what done to them by whom is an awkward tongue-twister. The two sentences above reflect that. In the first sentence, the author tells who is doing the action in a simple but effective fashion. In the second sentence, the object is the recipient of the action. The neighbor—the subject—is moved to a secondary position. In a strong sentence, the subject always gets top billing.

It also requires fewer words. Seven words as opposed to five may seem trivial, but add two words to every sentence in your manuscript and watch the word count skyrocket. Why say in seven words what you can say in five? Nobody likes a blabber mouth. I mean, look what became of Polonius.

An active sentence is one that shows what happens in the most direct, engaging and efficient way possible.

~ Is passive voice all bad?

Is it ever okay to use the passive voice? Of course! Readers, like writers, enjoy variety. Sentence after sentence of the same structure can get dull.

~ When is passive voice best applied?

When the receiver of the action is more important than the performer of the action. Example: Jimmy Ray was arrested. (Does it matter who arrested him? If not, don’t mention it.)

When the performer of the action is unknown. Example: The jewels were missing from the museum. (Were they stolen by thieves? Misplaced by a careless curator? If you don’t know, you can’t tell.)

When the author deliberately wants to hold back information. Example: The night before the Derby, a million dollar race horse was set loose from its stable. (The writer may not want to identify which race horse, or who set it free, or why. In mysteries, withholding the Who’s and Why’s spark interest in the puzzle.)

~ When, in dialogue, a character wants to shift or mask blame. “Mistakes were made,” said the police chief. (Obviously, those mistakes were made by his officers, but the chief’s not going to throw his guys under the proverbial bus. This phrasing tells us a bit about the chief, too.)

Passive voice is not incorrect. It’s just not active. In the right circumstance, passive voice has a place in a manuscript.

~ What about To Be/linking verbs?

While Hamlet’s famous query may show his wishy-washy nature, “to be” verbs are not inherently passive. The “to be” verbs—am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being + their many forms—do not show action. They show a state of being. A “to be” verb does not show that the Who in the sentence does something. It shows that a What has been done.

Does this make “to be” verbs passive? No. Does it mean “to be” verbs are the best choices for active writing? Again, no.

To illustrate, let’s go back to the dog.

Example 1: I was standing at my window, watching my neighbor beat my dog.

Example 2: I stood at my window and watched my neighbor beat my dog.

Both sentences describe the same scene, but Example 1 tells what the subject is doing; Example 2 shows the subject doing it. As every writer has heard a zillion times, showing is better than telling.

Is there such a big difference? In both sentences, the poor dog is getting it from the neighbor. Both sentences share the same information, but the active sentence is more direct. It does what writers are always told to do: show the act instead of tell what happened.

TOMORROW – Active Words

3 thoughts on “How To Be—or Not to Be—An Active Writer

  1. I’m printing this out and giving it to myself…I have to remember that active is more exciting, more tension-building, etc. Thanks, Ramona…you are a jewel !


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