Monday, March 3, 2008

Passive and active-- a question

Sherry asks:

One of the hardest things for me is to make my writing less passive, more active. Seems I usually start out in passive, then have to go back and rework it into more active and present style.

Any suggestions to help me get into active on the first try?

Sherry, I don't know that there's anything wrong about noticing passivity and revising it in the second draft. Many of us write in layers, and maybe your second layer is "action".

However, I suspect it's easier to draft actively if you actually put yourself in the scene-- I mean, physically (that is, figuratively speaking :0) -- imagine yourself the viewpoint character, moving through the scene, interacting with the setting, affecting the setting. That is, make your pov character active, and tell the scene that way, and see what comes out in that first draft.

So... think of how your character acts and reacts-- how you can increase his/her activity level.

Some ideas:
1) Give her a task, even if it's not real important to the scene action. It's nice if it thematically echoes or conflicts with the emotional action of the scene, like she's washing dishes while she's confessing her affair; or she's taking a shower ("coming clean") while she's lying about where she was last night. But really almost any task can make the scene more dynamic. She's getting dressed (break that down into little actions, almost like you're directing a film-- she puts on her bra, and then her panties, and then her stockings, and then pulls a dress over her head, etc). He's looking for something to eat (opening the fridge, closing it, putting bread in the toaster....) -- this helps give some narrative propulsion to what might otherwise be just introspection or dialogue.

2) Make your setting invite action. There are scenes you can set anywhere-- so before you write a scene like that, think about where you can set it, and go beyond your first impulse. Yeah, they can have this conversation on the porch, or they can have it in the garage as he's fixing the car. Always try to power up the setting--A scene set at a restaurant table isn't likely to invite action the way a scene set in the restaurant kitchen will. In a dialogue scene, think about how the setting can affect the conversation process. Let's say the hero has to apologize. It's easy to apologize in the privacy of her living room... but what if she won't let him in, and he can only get to her when she's in a church, so he has to talk while the congregation is singing a hymn, or write notes on the church bulletin and pass it to her, or... much more fun.

3) Put props in the setting-- objects that can be picked up, put down, moved, used. Again, how can a prop help echo what's going on emotionally? "Their song" comes on the CD player, and she gets up to change it because she doesn't want to hear it when she's mad at him. The tea kettle whistles, startling her when she's trying to surreptitiously approach his sleeping form. He picks up a pack of cards on the coffee table and automatically starts shuffling and dealing, revealing his facility at gambling.

4) Think about how what has to happen can happen in a more active way. She has to find the clue... how can she do that? She can see it while reading the newspaper (passive), or she can figure it out when she's playing softball (sort of active), or she can seek it out by breaking into the old school (active).

5) Put obstacles in the way of the character accomplishing something. He's driving to work. What can go wrong? She's trying to convince the detective that she's not crazy. What can make that task more difficult?

6) Think how this scene would be filmed. That is, think visually! Films have to keep characters in motion. So if you were directing this scene, what would you have the characters do?

See, active prose is easier when there's action to narrate!


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