Be Active Part 2

In this post, I discussed the What, Why, and When of Be Active. The post below concludes the series.

How

Step 1 – Take a scene and write just the verbs.

Consider the following:

Sally had a pony. It made her happy. One day, she was riding and saw storm clouds on the horizon. It started to rain. She could have gone back to the stable. Instead, she was so happy that she continued riding, even while the rain began to make her wet.

That’s not exactly the most compelling paragraph ever written. Granted, there are many issues with it, but a part of the problem is the lack of action conveyed by the verbs. Let’s look at them:

Had
Made
Was
Saw
Started
Could
Was

Step 2 – Replace weak verbs with strong ones.

All seven verbs above are weak. None convey action or motion.

Sally had a pony. It made her happy.

Instead of telling the reader in static terms that Sally owns a pony and how that pony makes her feel, let’s show them:

Sally stilled her tapping foot and glanced at the clock again. Only five more minutes, she thought. Her ears repelled the teacher’s voice as the seconds ticked. She pressed her feet hard against the floor to keep her knees from swaying.

Finally, the bell rang, and Sally rushed from the building. Rainbow, she thought, here I come. She smiled.

Okay, not the greatest piece of literature ever produced, but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re showing how eager Sally is to get to her pony and how happy she is at the prospect. Note the verbs in this version:

Stilled
Glanced
Thought
Repelled
Pressed
Rang
Rushed
Thought
Smiled

With the exception of “thought,” which is a necessary evil, all these words convey motion.

One day, she was riding and saw storm clouds on the horizon.

There are isolated instances where it is appropriate to use “was” plus a gerund. Most of the times that I see a beginner using the construct, it is not a wise choice. In this case, “was riding” can be translated as “existed in a state of riding.” It’s much stronger to depict Sally as “riding” by using “rode” than as “existing” by using “was.”

The second clause is likewise quite weak. It’s an example of what I call the bad version of filtering. We’re in Sally’s point of view, so there is no reason to write that she saw. If we simply show the reader what she sees, they understand that it’s coming through her eyes.

Her legs churned as she ran to the stable, and she threw her arms around the pony’s neck before saddling him. After a quick check of the horse’s legs, she galloped toward the river.

Wind whipped through her hair. Too much wind.

She frowned. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

Again, look at the verbs used:

Churned
Threw
Galloped
Whipped
Frowned
Gathered

It started to rain. She could have gone back to the stable. Instead, she was so happy that she continued riding, even while the rain began to make her wet.

Any time you see “started to” or “began to” in your writing, examine it. Most of the time, it’s hiding a better verb.

Likewise, consider “was” to be one of the worst worse you can possibly use. If you can get rid of it without going through verbal gymnastics, do so.

It’s not always possible to avoid “could,” but realize that it’s weak.

Large, wet drops splashed on her head and shoulders, and she slumped in dismay at the thought of cutting her ride short. There’s no lightning or thunder, she thought.

She grinned. I won’t melt.

Note how the combination of showing and conveying motion transformed a horrid, uninteresting paragraph into something that is at least readable.

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