January Feature Article
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Activate Your Fiction
by Rachel Tolman Terry

Tom's limp body was dragged around the barn to the pasture.

Why, you wonder, does the author take so long in getting Tom's limp body from here to there?  Does she dread the cow pasture? Should you? Will the rest of the story take as long as this first sentence?

Passive voice can slow your fiction to a dreary standstill. That's why it's so important to recognize the passive voice and kill it before it kills your story. In the above sentence, the author stamped out the action with "was." The verb, though dormant, exists in this sentence: "drag." But the author hasn't allowed it to take the action. We would find ourselves much more involved with the action if we read:

The girl dragged Tom's limp body around the barn to the pasture.

Not only is the action closer to the beginning of the sentence but the author has also been forced to insert a dragger, the girl. The immediacy of the action draws us in and makes us wonder what will happen next.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Because of fiction's character-driven nature, the subjects need to be as active as possible. What's more interesting-a body being dragged by some nameless source, or a real live
person dragging the body? Don't relegate your subjects to victim material.

Passive voice makes for wordy prose. Then you have weak verbs--wimpy words that can swamp your writing. We get into the trap of writing in the weak or passive voice for several reasons. 

First, writing with active verbs takes more forethought. Our language provides plenty of gutsy, strong verbs, but our brains usually first think of the same sentence constructs we use day after day.  Reading exciting prose on a regular basis can help bring these strong verbs to the forefront of your vocabulary.  Instead of writing, "She was walking briskly to the hut," you'll say, "She raced to the hut."  As you watch a squirrel scamper across the park bench, a van swerve to a screeching halt, a speck of dust descend to its final resting place, think of multiple active verbs that could describe the action.  Practice thinking in verbs.

Secondly, most of us habitually speak in either weak or passive voice, so it takes some practiced discrimination to recognize those tiny, sneaky "to be" verbs like was, were, and are. When trying to adopt a "natural" voice in our writing, we tend to write exactly as we speak.  But all those extra, insignificant words that dissolve into the phone line as we converse with friends turn ugly when they show up in black and white.  Just as readers don't want to read all of the "ums," "ers," and "ya knows"--and they don't want to read "to be" verb after "to be" verb.

If you're serious about gutting your writing, sit down with a pen--preferably red--and circle all the forms of the verb "to be" (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been).  Although "to be" verbs are not synonymous with the passive voice, they can help you locate passive or weak phrases. This exercise opens your eyes to the "to be" addict within.

Once you have circled all those wimpy "to be" verbs, examine a sentence:

A decision was reached by the committee.

Who prompts the action in this sentence?  The committee.  Bump the committee up to the beginning:

The committee reached a decision.

You've knocked out two superfluous words and given the committee some real power.



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