Passive voice. It’s every writer’s enemy. If you’ve ever had to write book reports or term papers with any degree of regularity, the telling style of writing is something that is hammered into you. With the analysis type papers we write in school it’s all about tell, tell, tell. Writing in passive voice can become so automatic we slip into it in our fiction. All that manages to do is create a very slow ,tedious read.
Fiction writing is all about the active voice. We want to show not tell so that our readers are in the action, seeing it unfold. Writing inactive voice is all about crafting the scene so that it comes to life in the readers mind. We don’t want narrators to run amok explaining the events that unfold. After all, this is a book not a dissertation. With that being said, I’m going to use an excerpt from my current WIP to demonstrate my point and give you a before and after shot.
The Original Scene
Thank god for decent night vision, Adrian thought as he navigated his way to the suite’s bathroom. Lee slept soundly and he didn’t want to turn on a bright room light and awaken him. Closing the door behind him, he flipped on the bathroom light revealing a sizable room that had black granite counters and floor tiles, a jacuzzi tube that could fit three people, and a little alcove for the toilet. He took a minute to study himself in the mirror that covered the wall from counter top to ceiling and stared in amused wonder at the variety of markings that Leland had left on his body. Lee had always been a territorial sort. He used the bathroom, then exited to go check in with North since he’d been out of touch all afternoon. The blow came out of the darkness. He heard the rustle of clothing mere moments before the blow landed and was able to deflect the first blow, but didn’t react in time to completely block the second. The knife his attacker wielded sliced his forearm. Pain radiated up Adrian’s arm from the slice, in the at instance he knew something wasn’t right.
Rather blah if I do say so myself. Lots of telling, internalization, and unnecessary description. I’m telling the reader about the action instead of putting the reader in the middle of it. The scene was full of he felt, he saw, he heard. All of this is telling which distances the reader from the story and slows the overall pace. That’s certainly not something that you want especially not when it’s building toward a fight scene and you really don’t want to slow the pacing of the actual fight scene with telling. Now try the scene again after two rounds of rewrites.
The Edited Version
“Thank god for decent night vision.” Adrian padded to the suite’s bathroom. The hinges gave a soft squeak and he cringed, frozen in place. He glanced back over his shoulder toward the king sized bed. Lee’s face stayed buried in the pillow. Adrian let out the breath he’d been holding. He really didn’t want to dive into round two of messed up relationship discussions. Sleeping with Lee wasn’t one of his better ideas, but once Lee had kissed him he couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted.
He eased the door shut and flipped on the lights, squinting as the over bright blast assailed his eyes. He took a minute to study himself in the mirror that covered half of the wall.
“Damn Lee,” he murmured. The cold granite pressed into his stomach as he leaned in to the counter as he poked at the variety of markings that Leland had left on his body. “I look like the victim of a vacuum run amok.” He turned trying to get a look at the injury on his back. No more pain, but the flesh remained a bit raw and pink.
He used the bathroom, then washed up. He needed to call Chris. He hadn’t checked in all afternoon. He eased the door open and reached to flick off the light, as he did a rustle of fabric caught his attention. He whirled in time to see the glint of a blade as it arced toward him. He deflect the first strike, but he didn’t react in time to completely block the second . The knife his attacker wielded sliced his forearm.
“Leland. Grab your phone and get the hell out of here. Now!” He yelled. His strength seemed to wane and an odd tingling sensation grew with every blow he landed. Something wasn’t right.
See the difference? Instead of telling you what Adrian heard, you’re hearing it with him, feeling his emotions with him, etc. I’ve also sped up the pacing, made the scene flow better, and made the page easier to read by having smaller chunks of text instead of massive paragraphs.
What other tips and tricks to you have for shifting a scene from passive to active. Believe me I need all the help I can get.