Use an Active Voice

As we dig in for Hurricane Irma here in Florida, I ran across a random reblog on tumblr about using filter words that made me think about my writing.

When I started writing, there wasn’t a lot of advice out there for budding authors that was easily accessible. (Not that I would have taken it if there had been.) Unlike today where you can sign up for tumblr or twitter and follow half a dozen writing advice blogs and people with just a couple of searches and a few clicks. (Who all reblog each others advice.) I had one tiny writing advice book that was almost a novelty item rather than a book, instinct, a whole lot of trial and error and fiction books to read on my bookshelves. And then I wrote. I wrote a lot.

And there were a lot of great pieces of advice in the little writing novelty advice book, “Writer’s Little Book of Wisdom by John Long” But there were perhaps two pieces of advice that saved me a lot of trouble and kept me from bad habits in my writing. They were in brief. 1) Use an active voice to bring your characters to life. 2) Avoid filtering an image through an observing conscience. Two came before one but two can really be seen as a corollary of one. If you apply an active voice. You are more likely to avoid filter words.

What is an active voice? The active voice is when the character is doing something to the object of the sentence. I really like the example from the book. “She slapped the Deacon across the face.” It’s energetic. It’s exciting. Who is this character? Why is she slapping the Deacon? What did he say/do? Did he really deserve it? So many questions from seven words!

She breathed heavily. Her heart pounded. Her nostril’s flared. Her fists clenched. She trembled with rage. When using an active voice, the character is engaged and doing something. It shows through her body language and her bodily reactions that this character is angry. All without the writer having to tell the reader “She was enraged.” (Though writers will do both, show and tell to make sure everyone knows exactly what is going on.) “She was enraged (by zombies)” is a passive sentence by using the verb to be in front of the  active verb.

Nobody wants to be chased by zombies! “The Deacon enraged her” would be the active voice example of that sentence. (Thank you Professor Johnson of USMC for the handy ‘by zombies’ trick.)

Now, to expound upon that example and explain filter words. Filter words are words that try to describe something through the character’s viewpoint. These are words like felt, heard, saw, noticed. “The Deacon felt his cheek burn.” Is an example of using filter words. Whereas, it is much stronger and more active to say, “The Deacon’s cheek burned.”

The Deacon’s cheek burning brings the reader into the character’s world rather than being a third party to what the character sees, hears and feels. “His face felt hot” or “he felt hot” may be correct grammatically. But still aren’t as visceral as “His face heated” or “He heated.” And those are an active voice!

Using an active voice really brings the reader into the story. It keeps their eyes glued to the page. (It’s why I don’t really like present tense. It doesn’t feel ‘active’ enough to me and if I do end up reading a story with it I translate it to past tense in my head. I recognize it as a viable style. It just isn’t my cup of tea.) If the author wants to be able to explore their character’s head and thoughts more fully, then by all means use a first person point of view! That way there is less temptation to use filter words and keep the story in the active voice.

It comes down to a matter of style and balance. Too much active voice, the scene might feel too choppy. Too much passive voice and filler words the reader will fall asleep and feel like they’re slogging through the book. As a writer and a reader, I know I prefer the active voice to the passive voice or using filter words because it keeps me a participant in the story. It pulls me into the world of the characters.

Now, I know I’m not perfect. (I should probably read every draft of all my books while exhausted that way I can make sure my prose isn’t confusing.) I know I might use “she felt” or “She heard” in my writing. Because sometimes it is a choice between “she heard.” or using comic book style noise words like “pow” and “clatter” and “thump.”  Sometimes I wish hearing was as simple as “water dripped in the corner” and “crickets buzzed outside.” Usually it helps if the character knows what the noise is. (but no, usually it’s a ‘what was that?’ type of thing.) So, if you decide to read my books and come back to point out my egregious errors where I didn’t use an active voice, then by all means have fun!

I know it is something I will keep my eye on in the future.

Happy writing!




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