Search This Blog

Monday, January 4, 2010

Which way does your action flow?

Passive voice and passive usage. What is it? When should and shouldn't I use it? Well, let's lay it out.

First, I want us to think about this in a different way, a way I hope will make it clearer why and when you should and shouldn't use these modes of writing. I want us to think in terms of the flow of movement in your verbs.

There are three ways the action in the verbs you chose to write with will flow: forward, backwards, and static.

Forward action is what is generally referred to as "active voice." Simply, the action of the verb flows from the subject of the sentence to the object of the sentence. Henry kissed the blond girl. The action flows from Henry to the girl.

Backwards action is when the flow of action moves from the object of the sentence to the subject. The blond girl was kissed by Henry. Here, the subject, the blond girl, is receiving the action from the object of the sentence, Henry. This is known as "passive voice" because the subject is being passive, that is, not acting, but being acted upon.

But action can also be static. There is no flow from or to either subject or object. These are usually typified by the use of linking verbs. The girl Henry kissed was blond. You'll notice the action of kissing is still there, but it is no longer the focus of the sentence. It has been demoted to a modifier of which girl we are talking about: the one Henry kissed. Rather, the focus now is on the fact that the girl's hair is blond. Though it mentions kissing, there is no real action present here. Rather, it is descriptive in a non-active way. This is what is known as passive usage in that the sentence itself contains no real action, the whole sentence is passive. So, I'm terming it static action.

Now that we have the definitions down, let's take a look at these. I've heard some people want to say that backwards action is simply their style, how they write, and chaff at the suggestion that they should change it. Why do editors want and good fiction writers use active voice or forward motion? Why do they say to avoid passive voice or backwards motion in fiction writing?

It's very simple. In story telling, in most all cases (there are always exceptions to most any "rule"), people want to see your main character do something which affects the outcome of the story and brings resolution. A story where everything happens to your main character isn't nearly as tense or interesting as one where your main character struggles to overcome some obstacle, whether they succeed or not. But to see your character do that, you have to use active voice. Otherwise, your main character will either not be the focus of the sentence(s), or the action will be flowing at him all the time instead of him doing the action.

But is there a valid use for backwards action? Yes. One, when you want to show your main character as having lost control, when things are spinning out of control and everything is happening to him. That's a time to use passive voice. If you know what affect it has on the reader when they read a passive voice, you can intentionally use it at times to create a sense of disaster happening all around.

Also, there may be times when you want the keep the action with your main character, but you want the focus to shift to a different character for some affect. For instance, your "hero" is about to strike the final blow that puts the villain in the slammer. Rosh was hit by Captain Flyboy, knocking him out cold.

Another time passive voice is handy is to create distance. The direct object isn't as intimate as the subject is. You are no so much in their head, so distance is created. In the example above, you may not want to make the action of Captain Flyboy as harsh as it might be, and so use passive voice to create some distance so the view is more objective than subjective.

The goal here is to know when you are using backwards action and do it to produce a specific affect. To use it as a style of writing may work for a news article or academic research paper, but for telling a story, its use would be limited to some very special cases. Otherwise, what you will produce is fiction lacking tension or intimacy.

While there are those who overuse backwards action, the bigger overuse is static action. Most writers who don't train themselves, will tend to write with a lot of static usage.

Don't think you do? Try this. Open your story in your word processor of choice. In most, you will find a search function which will highlight your search parameter throughout your document. Open that up and use "was" for the search parameter. Have it find all, and note how frequently this word appears in your story.

For most writers unless they've trained themselves otherwise, you will see it in nearly every sentence, sometimes multiple times in one sentence. What does this mean? It means your action is static which is really worse than backwards action, and you lose the effect it could have when you do want to use it.

Here are some common ways that static action tends to happen. One, when we attempt to describe the action of someone, but instead of describing the action, we describe the state of being of the one doing the action. She felt he was an idiot for not taking her seriously. Here, you are saying what she thought he was instead of describing the action itself. It would be more active to say, She felt he didn't take her seriously. In both, the subject does have forward action, but here the subject of the dependent clause is more active.

More commonly, you see static action appear in descriptions. The car was red. The dog was shaggy. Her hair was brown. In each of these, you are simply saying what something is. There is no action to speak of at all. But how much better to put all that into action when you describe something: A brown haired girl drove a red car as a shaggy dog chased it down the street. Make such statements into adjectives describing the objects, while those objects are in motion, when they are doing something.

But you can even make descriptions themselves come alive: The car flashed red as it passed a dog's bouncing shaggy hair covering a collar connected to a leash held by a girl flipping her blond hair in the breeze. A little wordy, but you get the idea. Learn to drop the linking verbs from your descriptions and they will move the story along rather than put it on pause while you lay out the scenery.

But are there times you want to use static action? Of course! One is in using a valid progressive verb. Henry was thinking she was smart. The first instance of was is a valid progressive verb use, "was thinking." You wanted to indicate that he didn't just think that in the past but had now moved on, but that he started to think that in the past and was currently thinking that in the present. But be careful, there are actions that progressive usage doesn't fit with, actions that by their nature can not be a continuing action. Henry was blowing up the building. There is only a split second when that statement would be true. He's either about to blow it up or he has. Yet, you'll see people use the progressive verb usage when it would be better to simply use past tense.

Another prime time to use static action is when you want to state specifically what something or someone's state of being is. This is often used for a revelation of some kind. Henry was right! Or in a murder mystery you might read, Henry was the murderer!

However, what happens if these statements are buried in an avalanche of static action usage? They don't stand out at all. They are simply one among hundreds of such statements. But, if they are one of the few, the brave, the proud, guess what? They have impact. The realization has force because the story isn't full of wases.

Another time I will use the more static action is in dialog. You don't want to overdo this, but it does give a more natural way to talk. We frequently use them in talking with each other. One of the reasons this works is that static action is more "telling" while forward action is more "showing." While showing is good for narration, we don't naturally talking in showing mode, we talk in telling mode. So, instead of, Henry said, "Did you see her car? It flashed red as it sped past me, the exhaust vibrating in my ears," it would sound more natural to say, "Did you see her car? It was an awesome red!"

But do searches on "was" and other linking verbs and evaluate each use to determine if you could say it in a more active way. This also will identify much backwards action which frequently uses a linking verb. What you should be left with are those uses you really want to keep in there, and they will stand out more when not in a crowd.

As you train yourself, you'll find your writing will be more dynamic and exciting by only using backwards and static action flows to specific instances when they serve a purpose.