Writing: Passive Language

I’m looking at a story for a friend right now and I’m reminded of a couple of things that new writers often do. One is using passive language. Passive language slows down action and in general creates lag in the plot. It might be best used when talking in the past. Stories are most often written in past tense but this does not mean that it is the past as far as the action goes.

Confusing? Yes. The modern convention is to write what is called past simple tense, such as, “He tossed the ball and caught it.” Present tense is, “He tosses the ball and catches it.” There are finer points with past and present tense and variations but the most common past tense for storytelling is simple past. Once we get into the other forms (He had tossed the ball… or He had been tossing the ball) we start to move away from the most direct¬†route for action to¬†occur.

Pacing is a difficult and important aspect to any story, whether you’re reading it on the page or watching it on the screen. Too slow and the reader/audience becomes bored. Too fast and it can get confusing. Being too fast in a written story is not so much an issue unless actions happen so quickly that they are not described adequately for the reader to envision them or they skip crucial elements of action.

But the story must flow and move along. Passive language is not that suitable for actions. Words that bring about the slowing of action, where it no longer seems immediate, are past progressive and past progressive simple. These words are had/has/have been, was/were and gerunds, the words that end in “ing.” He tossed the ball,” is more immediate than “He had tossed ball,” or “He had been tossing the ball,” or “He was tossing the ball.” However, in writing there is a place for all of these versions of past tense. The last example is used when the action is still happening while some other event occurs. “He was tossing the ball when the van hit him.”

The best rule of thumb for new writers is to look at a sentence and see if it can work without the had/have and gerunds. In most cases it will make a tighter, better flowing story where the action seems immediate and intense.

Another example: “He was thinking that he had to drive through the tunnel so his evading techniques would confuse them.” A pretty bad sentence (none of these examples are from my friend’s story BTW). “He was thinking” is very passive and not needed. If you’re in the point of view of the character you’re going to know it is his thoughts. A better choice would be “He drove through the tunnel hoping to evade and confuse his pursuers.” Hoping is a gerund but it’s needed in this instance.

Without actually understanding the full use of the different past tenses, a person can just use the simple exercise of looking for every word that ends in “ing” and seeing if it can be rewritten otherwise: he was walking=he walked, they were screamed=they screamed, I was laughing at him=I laughed at him. It can make a story just that much better with a bit of slashing.

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