Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice
When I’m editing a work of fiction, I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.
Active writing… the antithesis of passive writing. Friends who write and creative writing teachers, editors and agents, publishers and critics and helpful relatives at Thanksgiving dinner—they’re always imploring us to “Write active, not passive.” So what part of the creative writing process—voice, style or composition—should continually sparkle with activity?
The answer is: Yes, yes and yes. All of the above.
Remember Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Inhale or Exhale. A fiction writer constantly, continually pushes a character toward conflict, or pulls her away again. Anybody who’s ever read a great work of fiction can pretty much intuit an inhale from an exhale, and you’ll discover a quite different form of active voice at play in each element. Think of a fictive inhalation as being plot driven, visually stimulating and action-oriented. A fictive exhalation is more character-oriented; emotional, thoughtful, psychological or spiritual.
Both elements (active/emotional) of active voice are essential. Just because a scene may feel passive—that’s not an excuse for one’s writing style to become passive. You’re breathing significant life into scenes both frenetic and placid. And don’t forget that breathing life into a novel isn’t a singularity. It’s a constant flow, back and forth, in and out, yin and yang. When evaluating a manuscript, I look for active writing on three distinct levels: Voice, Language and Plot. But let’s look at voice, first.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Show, don’t tell. (And a bit more about the specifics here, but keep reading…!)
Show, don’t tell. Meaning… show the reader the gleam of the diamond, the glint of hard steel, the fragrance of new blossoms in the spring—and not simply tell the reader, it’s a rock, it’s a sword, it was warm.
When you tell a story in passive voice, you’re providing a bare-bones, superficial glimpse through a dispassionate, authorial (a.k.a.: omniscient) voice. For example:
John hated Mary.
The statement may be clear and simple—and even somewhat effective—but it’s hardly exciting writing. When you allow us to glimpse morsels of your story by using active voice, you’re using interpretive sensory details far more illuminating, and pleasing—or horrifying, if that’s your intent—to the reader’s senses. You’re revealing hidden passions or characteristics or secrets that may not otherwise be revealed. You’re sifting through the layers of each character, seeking those few gleaming shards that best illustrates the fact that John does indeed hate Mary. You’re picking a single carrot out of the stew, and investigating that one morsel in breathtaking detail.
Mary recoiled at her husband’s touch. She found his breath cloying, his voice dripping with a sarcastic bitterness that betrayed his disgust with the woman who had once captured his soul.
Or ponder the efficient, yet detached: Joan loved Paul.
Now consider the alternate: She adored the way Paul reached for her hand when they walked together on the beach, or how he touched her face in the moonlight, and whispered her name.
Not once does a writer need to use the words “love” or “hate.” Instead, the reader intuits those vibes from the use of richer language. A single tear falling from an eye can be a far more poetic experience than Joan sobbed all day long.
So… Is Showing, Not Telling a principle element of Simple, but Exciting? Or of Exciting, but Simple? It is, IMHO, the best of both worlds. Let’s backtrack a sec:
She adored the way Paul reached for her hand….
A pretty basic concept, no? A single, simple sentence evokes an emotion, a bond between Joan and Paul. A confident writer might intuit that no further character development is necessary yet, or else add a line or two more to impart other significant detail about their relationship at the moment. However, lavishing nuance after nuance into another dozen pages would, indeed, complicate the obvious. Once we intuit that Joan indeed loves Paul, it’s time to move on. Thus, a writer might begin to scene set, adding details about the endless, palm swept, black-sand beach. Or perhaps it’s time to infuse a plot element—introducing that unseen, 18-foot Great White swimming hungrily just beyond the breakers.
Rule #20: Don’t extend a scene past the “just enough” point. For instance, “too much” might look like:
She adored Paul because he’d once bought her flowers that had cost twenty dollars at the carnival in Rio, but back then Paul had a part-time job as an undertaker, so he didn’t mind spending so much, even though he could have bought roses cheaper down the road at a place called Pepe’s, where Paul had once dated a girl named Rita.
Unless any of the above rambling “summary” is later crucial to the plot (or a very specific style choice that’s leading somewhere), Paul’s former career, the existence of Pepe’s or Rita’s mention, that information does not belong in the book. And certainly none of it belongs on this beach. If any of the information is later crucial—introduce those elements at the appropriate time. In other words, if we don’t meet Rita again for 150 pages, don’t mention her in passing now. We certainly won’t recall her name! Nor should you expect a reader to carry that baggage for 150 pages. However, if Rita will develop later into a necessary character, give her ample stage-time (if only a few paragraphs), or some specific trait, sufficient for readers to remember her 150 pages hence.