Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Passive vs. Active Voice

ID-100174671Whether composing fiction or nonfiction, writers should be concerned about the strength of their sentences reflected in word choice, as well as structure – and that usually means using active voice (or construction) instead of passive.

According to The Elements of Style, “the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,” and, “The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind.”

I’m not a grammar geek, so this is not a grammar lesson – go to Ashlyn Macnamara’s post for that – but here is a quick refresher: In active sentence construction, the subject performs an action, making the subject the most important part of the sentence (subject, verb, object). In passive construction the subject is receiving the action, making the object the most important part of the sentence (object, verb, subject).

In the following simple examples, it’s clear that active construction is less wordy, less awkward, and more straightforward than passive.

Active: Frank ate the ice cream cone.
Passive: The ice cream cone was eaten by Frank.
Active: The teacher asked Jenny to stop yelling in class.
Passive: Jenny was asked by the teacher to stop yelling in class.

Writers are often cautioned that the use of “to be” verbs – such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been – equate to passive voice. But in the strictest sense, “Frank was eating the ice cream cone” is not passive construction because of the subject/verb/object structure.

However, just as the use of “by” (eaten by Frank) in the previous examples points to passive sentences, a “to be” verb such as was often indicates a place where writing can be strengthened. The same is true of using a “to be” verb along with a verb + “ing” ending (was eating).

The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer. ~ William Zinsser

The following is a paragraph I wrote as an example of passive voice and overuse of “to be” verbs.

Jake was running along his favorite path that led through the forest. Birds were singing overhead and squirrels were climbing the trees. Jake knew this was the best way to be constructive with his time in solving his problems. Today an article needed to be written for his journalism class about the different ways that quotations are being used in dialogue. Using double quotation marks is how Americans write dialogue. Single quotes are used by British writers. And a new way has just come along – not using any quotation marks at all. If there was only one way to format dialogue, Jake’s life would be much easier.

Here is the same paragraph strengthened with more specific verbs (jogged vs. running, chirped vs. singing, etc.), most of the “to be” verbs removed, and taking a more direct approach to convey ideas. This isn’t a perfect rewrite, but the result is more concise and uncluttered.

Jake jogged along his favorite path through the forest. Birds chirped overhead and squirrels skittered through the trees. Jogging in the outdoors always helped Jake solve his problems. Today he needed to write an article for his journalism class about using quotation marks in dialogue. Americans use double quotation marks. The British use single quotes. And the newest way does not include quotation marks at all. Jake’s life would be easier if the world decided on one standard way to format dialogue.

In the following example from one of my fantasy works-in-progress, “had” signals a place where a sentence can be strengthened. (Thanks to a critique by Kirt Hickman who suggested ways to fix passive construction in my early writing.)

The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger had the Sight and nothing moved yet in those depths.


The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger’s sight penetrated even those. Nothing moved yet in their depths.

It’s not possible, or suggested, to rid our manuscripts of all “to be” verbs or to be rigid in using only active construction. But the suggestion I take seriously is to be aware of how I construct my sentences and to make conscious choices accordingly. Sometimes I’m able to catch passive voice as I write, but the editing phase is when I find most of my problems. I do a search of those words I know I overuse (like was or had) and then decide if I can strengthen a sentence by substituting a stronger, more active verb or noun.

[T]here are going to be times when the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence. It might be more appropriate for the situation. Like so many things in writing, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as what you’re doing is exactly right for what you’re trying to say. ~ Janice Hardy

Good writing is made up of many elements layered or woven together into the whole. If you’re like me, you’re still learning and weeding through all that advice thrown around the Internet. Here is one of the best worth considering:

I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there. ~ H.G. Wells

Is passive voice a problem you deal with in your writing?

You might want to check out the following regarding passive voice:
Janice Hardy, “Passive Aggression: Avoiding Passive Voice
Liz Bureman, “When You SHOULD Use Passive Voice
Bartleby.com, from the Elements of Style, 11. Use the active voice.

Image “Digital Equalizer” courtesy of panupong1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Pacing

3D Man on Green Arrow3The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page….Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A study of your favorite book, the one that keeps you turning pages late into the night, will reveal a perfection of pacing. The opposite is true of a book that takes you out of the story with bogged-down narrative. In this case you might find yourself cursing the author with, “Oh, please get on with it. I can’t suffer through more description of ball gowns and medieval livery.”

Pacing as it applies to story
A well-told story carries a reader into a character’s life but moves quickly through those parts which don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict. This would be information the reader needs to know, but a brief mention or presentation through summary is sufficient, such as relaying bits of back story, observations about the weather, or a transition or passage of time during which nothing truly important happens.

Example: A man is dressing for his wedding, but the day has been filled with omens that make him wonder about the future. It might not be necessary to go into the details of looking for lost car keys, changing a flat tire, stepping in dog poo, and ordering broccoli and beans for lunch. A summary will do, unless the specifics are important for the story later on.

It’s just as necessary to slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. Take the time to set the mood through description. Unfurl the emotional state of your characters, plant seeds of mystery.

Examples: Recounting a tragic event such as a murder (which might happen quickly in real life) would be made more powerful by presenting it slowly. And there are moments that stretch out and become important for the epiphany that follows. I once had the pleasure of falling backward off a telephone pole from 20 feet off the ground. The world passed by in slow motion as I watched clouds float across the summer sky – right before I slammed into the ground.

Pacing as it applies to structure
Think variety when forming sentences and paragraphs. Reading sentences of the same length and rhythm becomes boring after a short period of time. In general, vary their lengths by using short, long, and compound constructions. Also vary paragraph size. Keep in mind that large blocks of text slow the reader down – a good thing if that’s the effect you’re trying for, but huge paragraphs can also signal information dumps.

The way a scene or chapter begins and ends also impacts pacing. Cliffhangers (not necessarily literal or extraordinary) are a good way to entice a reader to turn the page, but can be overdone. Structuring the end with hints of what’s to come, leaving a situation unresolved from one chapter to the next, or dropping in a new conflict will keep a reader wondering what will happen next. Begin a new scene or chapter with something happening, close to the heart of the action. Again, variety and writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.

Here’s a table with suggestions on how to speed up and slow down the pace of your story. Go to Controlling the Pace of a Story for the pdf version.

Controlling the Pace of a StoryPerfecting story pacing is a skill that comes with time, whether through years of practice or by focusing on it during the editing process. It’s one of the most important elements of any fiction or nonfiction project for keeping the reader engaged through the end.

So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Novel Focus

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbValuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. ~ from the NaNoWriMo website

On November 1, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world will begin National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a crazy journey to write a 50K novel in thirty days. If you’ve never participated in NaNo, you might think such a thing is an impossible feat, but it is possible and you can do it (I’ve done it twice).

But writing a novel in thirty days is not something you just dive right into, even if you use the pantser method. Planning is the key to ending up with a useable first draft instead of a manuscript made up of the phrase “I hate NaNoWriMo forever” scribbled 10,250 times.

Pantser Method

I’m a pantser, I dive right in when I write. If you’re like me, you have an oh-so brilliant idea for a story and one or more interesting characters to populate it. If you don’t already have a vision of where the story starts, use October to think about your story world and where your storytelling will begin. Visualize the setting. Who are the characters and what are their goals? If you’ll be writing in a sci fi or fantasy world, what are the rules of this place (and/or its magic), the politics, religions? Make notes – remember nothing has to be set in stone. Doing as much pre-thinking as possible before you sit down to write will save time during NaNo and multiple your word count. You might even venture into the darker planner/plotter side and jot down ideas for scenes, perhaps even the ending of the story.

Planner/Plotter Method

Since I’m not a major planner when I write, I defer to those writers with more experience in this area. Janice Hardy suggests the following six steps when planning your novel, whether or not you’re doing NaNoWriMo (see the complete article here with links to more posts about planning your novel).

  1. Is your goal to complete a 50K novel or the first 50K of a longer one? Answering this question first will help with pacing and plotting.
  2. Write a pitch line or several sentences of what the story is about. Clarifying the central conflict of the novel will make it easier to plot and will give clear goals for your protagonist (and antagonist).
  3. List the major points of your story (Hardy calls these set pieces): the opening, inciting event, first major crisis, midpoint reversal, and the second major crisis, point of no return, climax. These can be vague or set guidelines of where your story needs to go.
  4. Write a rough synopsis. This expands on steps 2 and 3 and will give you more of a guide to where your story is heading.
  5. Write a rough outline (Hardy considers this optional). Detailed or not, it will help break the novel into manageable pieces over the 30 days of NaNo.
  6. “Write down any other ideas about the novel…think of it like an idea bank for later.” Snippets of ideas could become scene sparkers or come in handy in other ways you can’t foresee.

If you follow Janice Hardy’s six steps in advance of NaNoWriMo (or any other novel project), you’ll have a good overview of the novel you want to write – and “don’t worry if it’s vague as long as you can see a story unfolding there.”

There’s a protag with a problem, a series of attempts to solve that problem, a conflict keeping them from their goal, stakes if they fail, and a resolution to the problem. If you have that, you have a much better chance of avoiding writer’s block during the month and actually finishing the novel. ~ Janice Hardy

Does writing a novel in 30 days sound so impossible now? If you’ve put off writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, make this the year you follow through. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at NaNoWriMo.org and begin planning your novel now. And if you’re still not convinced it can be done, check this list of WriMos who have gone on to publish their NaNo manuscripts (like Sara Gruen and her Water for Elephants).

Are you doing NaNo this year? Why or why not?

Janice Hardy has more in-depth articles about planning for a successful NaNoWriMo in the following posts and in her archives: NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Beginning and NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Middle.