On passive vs active

It was going to be one helluva day. He was sitting on a bench in the early morning before class. She was standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar. The sky was blue, like a three year-old would paint it; the sun was just climbing over the university buildings. It was then he saw the black motorcycle jump the curb and start to ride over the grass towards he and the girl. The rider was wearing a black leather touring suit and wore a tinted glass helmet. There was nothing he could do he reflected later. He was caught up with the audacity of the spectacle. So was she; the girl who was now chewing on her breakfast. She was just standing there. And then she wasn’t. No, she was now laying there, a dark red spot spreading from the hole in her chest; her cream-colored was sweater soaking up the blood that was ebbing from that fatal wound.

~~~

This is how I might have written this scene last summer, or anytime in the last 30 years, were I to put my mind to writing such a passage.

Let’s count the passive verbs… Sixteen. So, why does this matter? Here’s the thing, writing that came so easy to me. I simply pictured the events and wrote it without thinking about the actual writing. (Although I must confess, now that I’m getting a smidgen better at NOT writing passive narrative, I had to intentionally try and write passive for much of that scene.)

Writing passively is a natural tendency for new writers. Or rather: New writers tend to write passively. Or perhaps, unrefined writers write in a passive mode primarily due to the fact that they (we) witness the world in a passive fashion.

The sky was blue. Yes. Yes the sky was most certainly blue. He looked up and witnessed the sky and saw that — yes — it was blue.

This problem of passive writing exposes the “reporter” in all of us. If you reread that passage above you may find that it reads like a police blotter. Like a reporter stood by and dictated notes into a tiny recorder held protectively to his mouth. You can almost see the guy on the bench, called to the witness stand and hear him recite those exact words, first person: “There was nothing I could do. I was caught up with the audacity…”

I’m pointing all this out as I’m examining my own tendency to “report the news.” Is there a mindset, an alternative view of events, scenarios, people and places that shifts our reporting approach to writing? And can I adopt this approach — permanently?

I’ve become ultra-sensitive to passive writing. Every time I read the word “was” I react. Sixteen times the passive voice reared its dull head in the passage above. Sixteen times better phrases, wording and verbs could have been used to evoke more emotion, more impact in what must have been quite traumatic.

It was going to be one helluva day.
-or-
The events of the day would haunt him forever.

He was sitting on a bench in the early morning before class. She was standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar.
-or-
Sitting on a bench early that morning before class, he noticed her standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar.

The sky was blue, like a three year-old would paint it; the sun was just climbing over the university buildings.
-or-
The sky ached pure blue, like the color a three year-old would paint.  The sun’s probing rays peeked over the university buildings; the girl’s hair shown golden in the light.

~~~

Focusing on the action rather than focusing on the actors may be part of the trick here.

“You see a bucket, full of water, sitting on the edge of a stone water well, the young boy next to it is distracted by a spider crawling up the windlass rope.”

What will happen? Should we focus on the boy? On the bucket? The spider, or the well? Or should we focus on what any of these four things may end up doing? The actions any of them may take; the events that will unfold?

Will the boy /spill/ the water? Will the bucket /tip/ /tilt/ /tumble/ or /spill/ into the well? Will the spider /swing/ to start her web, or /jump/ to land on the boy? Will the well /yawn/ wide to /welcome/ the boy into its inky black depths?

We focus so much on the things around us that when we start writing we end up paying them the most attention. But it’s not the things that are enticing, or alluring, or interesting. It’s what these things *do*.  Shifting our minds to consider events, actions, or activities — first and foremost — may be one of the keys to learning how to write well.

~~~

With this in mind let’s review the top passage a bit more.

There’s this guy sitting there ogling this girl. Now, as an author we want to introduce a motorcycle and its rider. How should we think of this? Do we think about the guy noticing the bike? The bike and its condition or state of being? Or do we think of the bike jumping the curb, startling the guy, careening over the grass, charging toward he and the girl?

It was then he saw the black motorcycle jump the curb and start to ride over the grass towards he and the girl.
-or-
An engine’s throaty exhaust startled him from his day dream. He looked up and saw a black motorcycle jump the curb and charge across the grass toward he and the girl.

Now what happens? Do we focus on the girl’s existence, and then her position on the ground, the hole in her chest, her sweater? Or do we think about her reaction, the muffled shot of the silenced pistol, her collapse, the seeping wound, the sweater soaking up the spreading blood?

She was just standing there. And then she wasn’t. She was now laying there, a dark red spot spreading from the hole in her chest; her cream-colored sweater was soaking up the blood that was ebbing from that fatal wound.
-or-
The girl stood frozen in place, a look of shock and confusion tainting her beauty. A tiny black hole appeared in her chest like the attack of a hornet. Her knees buckled and she twisted to collapse face up staring empty-eyed at the deep blue above her. Dark blood seeped from the wound onto her cream-colored sweater staining it burgundy, a Cabernet spilled in manic laughter.

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2 responses to “On passive vs active

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