Has it really been since March of 2015 that I promised more posts ahead on the subject of active voice?
Better late than never, let’s get back to the subject . . .
As an editor, I frequently run across certain issues in the books I work on and in the interest of time, I’ve gathered together a small Word file I call “Common Comments.” Here’s one of them:
That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action.
“Something was verbing” is not a mistake, per se. This is one of those components to the craft of writing that goes past what’s grammatically correct and gets into what’s more engaging to readers. I’ve harped on this idea of emotional distance—the space between your characters and your readers—before, and this is another example of how unwanted separation can be introduced without you intending to do that, and there isn’t really a tool to use to identify it, at least not a reliable one.
Here’s what I mean:
Galen was running as fast as he could, the ghoul nipping at his heels the whole way. The screams the creature was making sent a chill down Galen’s spine, getting him thinking this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.
To start with, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about that short paragraph. It describes action, it gets into the character’s feelings about what’s going on—it’s fine, right?
Keep in mind that this isn’t about the number of words in each sentence. You need to use lots of words sometimes and very few words other times. It’s about the immediacy of the action, the immediacy of the feeling, and the difference between description in the context of fiction, and reporting.
As written this feels like a report on an unfolding incident. It tells us what was going on, and how Galen felt about it. But even if you’re writing in the past tense, there’s a sense of immediacy to well-crafted fiction that puts your reader inside the experience. The more words you use to qualify that experience, the more your reader is pushed away. We get the facts about what happened and what was being felt, but that one layer of remove is enough to leave readers dry.
This is another instance in which most readers wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate what’s “wrong” with that paragraph, but they will be left with a feeling that the writing was just somehow . . . dry?
As I said in my “common comment” above, the solution is almost always just this easy:
Galen ran as fast as he could, but the ghoul nipped at his heels the whole way. The creature’s screams sent a chill down Galen’s spine, and he was convinced this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.
Note that I removed almost all present participles, but not all. There’s no rule, as with adverbs, that all words that end with -ing should be summarily cut. They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable and extremely useful tools in any writer’s kit, but as with all tools, should be used with care and precision.
Identifying this as you’re writing is essentially impossible, but as you start to make your first edit pass through, use your handy search (not search and replace—just search) tool to find the suffix -ing.
Most of what you’ll find will be perfectly fine, but the key is not to delete anything, but to simply find those possible trouble points and read through it and think about it.
Would “she ran” make as much factual sense in that moment in the story was “she was running”? If yes, make it “she ran.” And if “she was running” makes more sense in that context, leave it alone—those three words do actually work together. But the point is to make that decision based on a set of specific circumstances rather than simply allowing yourself to write in a passive manner out of habit.
Once you go through this process in a few chapters or a few short stories, I think you’ll find new, more active habits forming.