In the previous post (Dragging Action in Fiction. “To Be” Verbs – or Maybe Not), we began to talk about writing habits in fiction that can produce dragging action. The first bad habit to watch for was using “to be” phrases plus “ing” verbs. (“There was a glass sitting on the table” versus “A glass sat on the table.”)
This time, we’ll look at two more verb forms: active and passive. Passive verbs can really slow things down, so for more lively action, use active verbs whenever it’s possible and fits well into the story.
What Active and Passive Verbs Are
First, a bit of grammar, so you’ll know what to look for.
In every sentence, you start with a subject, and then you have some action. So the very, very root form of any sentence is Subject-Verb, or Subject-Action. “Glass sat” is one example of this. All the other words and phrases in a sentence are, in many ways, just “filler.” They fill in more information about the glass, perhaps, or more info about how, where, and why it sat. But that subject-verb root always has to be there in a complete, grammatical sentence.
In a subject-verb sentence, the action can happen in two different ways. Either the subject is doing the action — so the verb in this case is called an active verb — or the subject is having the action done to it by another actor — so the verb is considered a passive verb.
The active type of verb is pretty straightforward: “A glass sat” or “He baked [something].” (You don’t always need the [something] with every verb, but with an active verb, that’s where the direct object of the action sits, if there is one.) “She invented [something].” “We listened.” “They walked.”
With active verbs, the basic form of the sentence is easy to see: Subject-Action-[possible Object of Action].
But with a passive verb, the subject of the sentence is not actively doing something but is receiving the action instead. So “He baked a cake,” the active form, is switched around to become, “The cake was baked by him.” Here, the cake is the subject of the sentence, but the action of being baked is being performed on it by something else. The cake is receiving the action; that’s why the verb is called passive.
Note that with this passive use of the verb, you can’t just use the verb by itself, like you can with active verbs. You have to turn the verb into a past participle, usually by adding “ed” or “en” onto the end, and you also need to add a past-tense form of the verb “to be” as an auxiliary to introduce that participle (That fact should already raise a red flag, after the previous post, but we’ll get there in a minute.) And then you usually put the word “by” before naming the thing that, later in the sentence, is actually performing the action on the subject.
So look at the following switches from active to passive verbs, with the accompanying switches in the subject of the sentence. See how the more lively action is turned into dragging action?
- “She invented fire” becomes “Fire was invented by her.”
- “I took a bath” changes to “A bath was taken by me.”
- “He walked the dogs” becomes “The dogs were walked by him.”
- “The kids burst the balloon” is switched to “The balloon was burst by the kids.”
Do you think you recognize the difference between an active verb and a passive verb now? If so, let’s go on.
Be Active, not Passive!
To detect this “passive” habit that can produce dragging action in our writing, let’s introduce a different example and wave fond farewell to our glass on the table. Let’s use “Andy read the book.” Here, Andy is the subject, and he’s doing the action — reading. The object of his action is the book. But the primary subject-verb part of the sentence is “Andy read.” He is doing something in an active way.
But let’s switch things up, based on our knowledge of passive verbs: “The book was read by Andy.” Here, book is now the subject of the sentence, and the verb shows that the reading is being done to it. It’s being done “by Andy,” but he is no longer the subject of the verb. Book is the subject, but it is receiving the action rather than performing it.
And that is the writing habit that slows things down: using a passive verb.
“Andy read the book” is direct and straightforward. Andy is active and doing something. But when you say, “The book was read by Andy,” the book is not doing any direct action at all. It is just sitting there, taking it. Talk about dragging action!
And does that sentence look a little familiar? Remember how those “to be” phrases in our previous post produced dragging action? (“There was a glass sitting…” versus “A glass sat…” Hello once more to our glass!) Well, here is a form of that same verb, “to be,” slowing down the action again. In this case, the verb form is was, but it could be were too, if the subject was plural. You won’t find as many different forms of “to be” used with passive verbs, but these two verbs do enough damage by themselves.
Keep in mind that, as with “to be” plus “ing” verbs, passive verbs do have their uses. For example, in the sentence “Barbara was given a good talking-to by her doctor,” you might not actually want to change the verb. If Barbara needs to start taking her health seriously, you might want to stress that she’d better sit there and listen if she knows what’s good for her. But most of the time, you want the straightforward action (e.g., “Her doctor gave Barbara a good talking-to.”)
So this is another way you can eliminate dragging action from your story and speed up the pace. Recognize the writing habit of using passive verbs, search the story for them, and change them to active verbs where you can. You’ll be surprised how much more lively and active your scenes become.
(And now check out the third idea in this series, Dragging Action in Fiction. Verbing a Noun.