Some might argue that what I’m going to talk about today, which is using active rather than passive language, is something that can be fixed later, in revisions and edits, and that’s definitely true. But let’s look at it as more of a mindset more than a craft skill. If we look at it this way, it becomes something that will keep your first draft alive and pulsing as you write.
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Let’s take a sentence about a man running down the street. We could say:
The man was running down the street.
The key words to notice there are “was running.” This is passive. If you already have a verb – in this case “running” – and you add a version of “to be”, such as is, was, or are, then you are slowing down the action, creating some distance between the action and the reader.
The active version of this would be:
The man ran down the street.
One verb – ran – and you are right there in the action.
One of the best tests I’ve heard for passive language comes from YouTube and podcast host Mignon Fogarty of Grammar Girl. She says that if you can put the phrase “by zombies” at the end of the sentence, then you have a passive sentence. Her example is the sentence “the dog has been fed.” The dog has been fed…by zombies. Passive sentence. Someone fed the dog. Who was it? (In her example it is, of course, that the zombies fed the dog.)
But I’m not necessarily here to be your English teacher from high school (although sometimes I can’t help it.) I want to give you some motivation for keeping an eye on active language vs. passive language from the very beginning of your drafting.
First of all, keeping your story active is important to keeping your reader engaged. But it’s also important for keeping YOU engaged. You know that feeling when you re-read something you’ve just written, and you feel sort of… blah about it? There is a good chance that passive language is playing a part in that.
Also, if you keep active language in the forefront of your mind as you write, you are keeping the action fresh and alive in your mind as you write, which is going to keep you more engaged with the story and more motivated to write it. The more active your language, the more vivid the picture in your mind and the more exciting it stays.
So while some might look at active language vs. passive language as something to be dealt with later, I’d encourage you to try and keep it in the forefront of your mind. It will help you in all forms of communication, but more importantly your story will be just that tiny bit brighter in your own mind…let alone that of your readers!
This was a tiny topic today, but it has a huge impact on how your story moves. If you want your characters moving through mud, then passive language is the way to go. But if you want the action to be vivid, fresh, and alive, keep your eye on that active language.
Is something – like passive language – keeping your story stuck?
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