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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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Writing: Talking Heads

When you write a conversation between two or more people, you have a dialogue. However, for many new writers a common problem is what we call “talking heads.” Dialogue goes back and forth between Dick and Jane but there is no setting, no description whether of the room or of their actions or mood. The reader will become lost, not being able to differentiate from one character to the next, or in being able to tell what is going on besides talking.

Using “Dick said,” “Jane said” with every line of dialogue becomes overly repetitive and boring to read. It also doesn’t show what the character is doing or feeling while they are talking. Writers will sometimes fall into: “I love that coat,” Jane said excitedly. “It costs a fortune,” Dick replied morosely.

Adverbs ending in “ly” can slow down the action. They’re also used to “tell” when the writer should be “showing” instead. Using the above examples with showing could result in much more information: “I love that coat,” Jane said as she ran over to the rack and pulled out the purple Armani.

Dick scowled and kicked at the faded carpet.  “It costs a fortune.”

Here we have Jane’s excitement shown by her actions. Dick’s disapproval is shown in his expression. We now have mood and something of setting, though not a lot. This could be extended to the next lines: Jane turned and looked at Dick, noticing his hunched shoulders. “How can you say that? It cost less than your golf clubs.”This now adds more on their relationship, and notice I didn’t even have to say “Jane said.” It’s obviously Jane because I’ve mentioned her. I’ve also now made it her point of view. By noticing Dick’s shoulders, we are seeing through her eyes. Once in a character’s point of view, you need to stay there and not jump back and forth from one character’s POV to another, or you risk giving your reader whiplash and further confusion.

You can get through a few lines of dialogue without description but very few. Even a half a page is too much without something. The reader needs tone of voice, emotions or actions. Adding tone of voice is a delicate thing. You don’t want every piece of dialogue to have: he expostulated, she snarled, he growled, she simpered, he bellowed, she screamed. It gets a bit much, bringing melodrama where it shouldn’t be.

All in all, you can have a dialogue heavy scene and still show action and setting and emotion. It takes practice and balance. Variety is part of the solution. Falling into a pattern of he said/she said, or having dialogue that always ends in action is a pitfall for repetition. The important thing is to keep the action active and to stay away from passive language.

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