Forging Stories 3: Passive Aggressive Behavior

Perhaps the first thing we’re taught as fiction writers is that passive voice is the literary equivalent of a clogged artery.  “Use active voice,” we’re told.

What exactly does that mean?

Here’s an example:

“Chelsea dove for cover. The sound of guns going off could be heard over the trampling feet of the terrified crowd. There was a smell of gun smoke in the air and blood was flying everywhere. Trying to get away, people screamed and ran, getting between her and the terrorists.”

Could you clearly picture the action? Did you realize that this passage describes a group of armed terrorists staging an attack on a crowded shopping mall? The protagonist, a police detective, is caught up in the chaos. The reader can be forgiven for not “getting it.” The setting is unclear. The “terrified crowd” could be anywhere.

Also, though the writer wanted to depict pandemonium, any excitement or sense of urgency is leeched out of the passage by the use of passive voice, inert verbs, and compound sentences. It’s not even explicit that Chelsea is the one who hears the guns or sees the blood flying everywhere.

Where’s the passivity? It’s in such phrases as “could be heard”, “there was a smell”, “blood was flying”, and the multiple clauses in the last sentence of the passage that buries the observer of all this mayhem (Chelsea) in the crowd.

Again, with urgency:

“Blood. Noise. Confusion. The acrid reek of cordite overwhelmed the holiday mall aroma of caramel corn and perfume. Chelsea dove for cover behind a fountain. She knew the rhythm of the weaponry; her service revolver would be all but useless against the terrorist’s submachine guns.”

What the edited passage does, besides impart more urgency to the scene, is give us more information about Chelsea and her environment. We know what time of year it is and we know that Chelsea isn’t just a holiday shopper, but a seriously outgunned policewoman or perhaps an FBI agent. The short, staccato sentences that lead off pick up the pace. In three words, the reader can catch the chaos.

The rewritten paragraph also engages the senses, calling on sight, hearing, and smell to set the scene. Best of all, it does it with an economy of words.

The soul of active voice is brevity. Not necessarily short sentences, but a short distance between the subject of the sentence and the action—the noun and the verb.  I think these two sentences should clarify:

  1. Chelsea got out of harm’s way by diving behind a cell phone kiosk.
  2. Chelsea dove behind a cell phone kiosk and out of harm’s way.

See and hear the difference? The first sentence tells us Chelsea is the actor, but we can’t see her act until the verb “dove” tells us what she did. In action sequences, the quickest route between two points is a strong one-two, noun-verb punch.

Next time: Verbing weirds language.



Forging Stories 3: Passive Aggressive Behavior — 5 Comments

  1. Sometimes I use a movie analogy. Some scenes are shot from far, the camera panning high over the battlefield or crowd or whatever. Other times they dolly in, and you can see the sweat dripping from brows or hear the rustle of the Bloomingdales bags.

  2. Do you call “there was a smell” passive because there’s not much happening? Because it might be wise to make it clear, because someone might not realize that it’s an instance of a linking verb, not the passive voice.

  3. I think of these as narrative issues. The first one is the deadly neutral narrator that has become too common since detached third became the mode. Many writers don’t know that there is a narrator at all, and slip into these neutral summaries to impart data, or even action.

    The second one is firmly in point of view, letting us know what Chelsea experiences, smells, hears, thinks and feels.

  4. @ Mary: Yes, I include linking verbs in passivity because they have the same effect on the prose. They stretch out the moment and obscure the actors and action. The sentence just lies there “there was a smell” “smells were made”.

    And, Phyl, I love the idea of a helmet cam that keeps the writer close to the narrative point of view.