I’ve been talking about general stuff for a while, so I thought it might be a good time to be a bit more active.
Of course, being active is just good advice in general, don’t you think?
Active can mean two different things in writing. We can be talking about my writing in and of itself. We can also be talking about what’s happening in the story and who’s doing it.
First things first. You’ve probably heard the term “active voice” tossed around a lot by guru types. It refers to how I’ve structured my sentence. Simply put, active voice is when my characters are doing stuff.
–Yakko mixed the soup and added pepper.
–Dot lit up the room with a flashlight.
–Wakko eviscerated the minotaur with his sword
If you want to be a bit more grammar-oriented, when I’m using the active voice my characters should be the subject of my sentence. They’re the ones doing things and making things happen. They’re the movers and the shakers.
Passive voice, on the other hand, is when stuff is being made to happen by my characters.
–Pepper was added to the soup as it was mixed by Yakko
–The room was lit up by Dot with a flashlight.
–The minotaur was eviscerated by Wakko’s sword
|Wakko celebrates his adjective status.
See, all these sentences convey the same information, but my characters are all objects now. The focus has shifted to the soup, the room, and the minotaur. Heck, to keep things simple, Wakko the character was effectively removed from that last sentence. He’s just a possessive adjective describing the sword (the real object).
Another advantage of active voice is that it tends to be clearer. Passive voice is an element of purple prose, which sounds nice sometimes but often gets confusing with all of its twists and turns, breaking the flow of the story
. Active voice is also usually more concise, which is great for pacing and word counts. It just feels more dynamic.
Now, you’ve probably heard a lot of gurus rant on about how you’ve always
got to use the active voice. Always, always, always, no exceptions
. Never use the passive voice for anything..
This is wrong, of course. There are plenty of times it’s fine to use passive voice. It’s the same with having non-stop action or focusing exclusively on my main characters and ignoring the secondary ones
. It’s a way to alter the tempo or tone a bit in a story.
The passive voice could be a quirk of a particular character’s way of speaking, especially in first person. It could be used to “step back” in a moment of drama or mystery. In screenwriting, it’s a clever way to change the visual of a moment without including camera angles or stage directions
. Done right, passive voice can even be used to increase horror—what could be worse than a character getting reduced to an object in all ways?
So while there are some good reasons to phrase things in the active voice, you don’t need to avoid the passive voice like the plague.
It’s not just enough to phrase things in an active way. My characters actually have to be
active. They need to make choices. They have to face challenges. They must take action. Not in a gun-slinging, sword-fighting, car-chasing way. Just in the simple sense of doing something. On one level or another, my characters need to be the ones making things happen
in a story.
I honestly couldn’t tell you the number of stories or scripts I’ve read where the main character doesn’t do anything. They just sit there as the story flows around them. Other people tell them what to do and make their decisions for them. They don’t take any action unless they’re dragged/ kicked/ forced into it. A lot of them are little character-study “indie” things
, but I’ve seen action movies done this way and horror novels, too. Heck, I saw the film adaptation of a Harry Potter
-esque book and it was almost halfway through the movie before the title character did a single active thing. Up until then he was just a sock monkey getting handed off to different characters.
Keep tabs on the voice of your story and make sure you’re not being too passive with your writing. And by the same token, you don’t want to have a lot of active writing about a character who doesn’t do anything.
Next time I’d like to share a little idea I had about reverse-engineering.
Until then, go write.