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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Be Active

This two-part series is another slightly better than rough draft version of a chapter from my upcoming book on writing. As always, I’d love feedback.

Be Active

What

The fundamental concepts of Be Active are twofold:

1. Subjects perform the action in a sentence.

Steve hit the tree.

The preceding sentence is written in active voice. The subject, Steve, performs an action, hitting the tree. Contrast that with a sentence written in passive voice:

The tree was hit by Steve.

2. The author chooses strong verbs that convey motion.

Steve was running toward the castle.

That sentence literally means, “Steve existed in a state of running toward the castle.” Instead of having your protagonist exist, show him doing something.

Steve ran toward the castle.

Or, even better:

Steve sprinted toward the castle.

Why

Using active voice and strong verbs:

• Creates more tension and more interest – Readers simply are more engaged by strong, active writing.
• Conveys a direct, authoritative style – If your goal is story over style, this technique helps.
• Is clearer – Active voice requires fewer words than passive voice and delivers the intended message in a more straightforward manner. Strong, active verbs generate action and emotion more effectively than other parts of speech without the need for modifying words to paint a picture.

When

Be Active should be your default technique. Use it unless you have a reason not to.

Reasons not to use it:

• You desire to focus on the object rather than the subject.

Beth was attacked.

The story, presumably, is interested in Beth, not the attacker. The use of passive voice focuses attention on her.

• You seek to reduce tension.

Since active voice and strong verbs create more tension, the reverse, using passive voice and focusing on existence rather than action, serves to reduce the tension.

• You seek to slow pace.

Concise and direct writing leads to an increased pace. Using more words and focusing less on action helps to slow things down.

Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of this post on how to implement this crucial technique.

Tips on Making Your Writing More Active

Passive writing has its uses (I’ll try to get around to a blog post on that subject at some point), but, in general, portraying activity and motion engages the reader better. So, some tips:

1. For the love of all that is considered Good Writing, refrain from sentences like this, “Joe was climbing the mountain.” Translate that as, “Joe existed in a state of climbing the mountain. That’s horrible. Readers want to see Joe climb the mountain, not Joe existing. “Joe climbed the mountain” is more active and uses one less word.
2. Take a portion of your work — be it a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph — and write down just the verbs. If you have a list that mostly conveys activity and motion without a lot of repetition, you’re doing great. If you see a bunch of was, could, had, see, look, and heard, then not so much.
3. If you see that your character started to run or it began raining, consider if you need “start” and “began.” Sometimes those words are, indeed, necessary. In a lot of instances, though, they’re a wasted opportunity. Consider: It started to rain. Would “It rained” convey what you need? Better yet, how about: A raindrop, cold and wet, splattered on Joe’s head. He cursed. The preceding both conveys that it is starting to rain AND, more importantly, adds the filter of emotional context to the event.
4. Inanimate objects can be described actively as well. Tolkien’s trees “marched” down the hillside. Mountains can stretch to the sky. Trees can loom over you. Even having a castle stand, though it doesn’t convey motion, is slightly better than having the castle simply exist (was).

BrianWFoster’s Eighth Law of Writing

Eighth Law – Be Active

Active writing is engaging writing.  Slogging through page after page of exposition and infodumps doesn’t draw anyone in.

Use Active Verbs:

Get rid of “was.”

Longtime readers will know that I have many pet peeves.  High among them is the use of “was,” especially when paired with the “-ing” form of a verb.

Joe was running down the street.

Which is better:

Joe existed in a state of running down the street.

OR

Joe ran down the street.

Anywhere you see a form of the verb “to be,” you need to examine it.  If you’re using it to create a particular effect of mood or pacing, that’s fantastic!  If you leave it in because taking it out would cause convoluted sentences, I can live with that.  If you have it in your text because you’re too lazy to find a better way, shame on you!

Choose the best verb

Bob looked at Joe running.

Your verb for the sentence above is “looked,” which is not strong.  In fact, you don’t need that first part at all.  Your reader understands that they’re seeing through the eyes of your POV character, Bob.  No need to restate it here.

Joe ran down the street as a scream pierced the night.

Your verb above is “ran.”  Which is stronger and more active: ran or pierced?  Change it to:

As Joe ran down the street, a scream pierced the night.

Be Active Even in Your Descriptions:

This is a technique the Tolkien used.  He had trees marching to the side of the road.  Peaks can lunge toward the sky.  Fields can envelop and surround.

Keep the Story Moving:

Be active in your storytelling as well.  Beware the word “had.”  Keep your characters on the move with stuff happening.