I was working on a new chapter for my straight mystery and wrote two sentences close together with the word “were” and stopped myself. I went back to rearrange the words to make the verb active. Instead of “Deep grooves at the corners of her eyes were testaments to how much time she spent outdoors,” I wrote, “Deep grooves bore testament to how much….” Not a big difference, but that tiny change made the sentence a little more dynamic. When I first started writing, I didn’t see what the big deal was, but I get it now, Active adds muscle. Passive lies there, flat.
The same goes for characters. The harder a character works to overcome a problem or to achieve a goal, the more I engage with him. I recently read a mystery where everyone but the protagonist was finding clues, then telling her what they’d learned. She wrote them in a journal to add them up and discover the killer. That might have worked for Nero Wolfe, but Sherlock Holmes went out and about himself to find clues no one else noticed. It took me a minute to realize why I wasn’t as invested in the book as I should be, then I realized the protagonist was passive. How much did she care if she found who committed the crime? Not enough to leave her routine and question anybody.
On the flip side, it really irritates me when smart women do stupid things to find answers and put themselves in danger. And I’m not a fan of protagonists breaking and entering to dig for answers. Save that for P.I. novels. But I am saying that a protagonist has to act, not just react. In cozies, the mystery often gets jostled alongside the protagonist’s job, family, and friends. Since the protagonist is an amateur, investigating gets sandwiched between regular life, and I like that give and take. The trick is finding the right balance. Caring enough to keep searching for answers has to be a priority. Solving what happened has to keep moving forward, not just be incidental.
Verbs and protagonists need to be active to make a story strong.