Passive is Weak

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.

Writing: Things to consider

I had a group of writer friends over last Wednesday for a NovelCon.  We each brought pages and spent the day, listening to parts of novels that each writer wanted feedback on.  Brainstorming with  friends always reminds me of things I know make for good writing and forces me to think about them again.

In random order, here are a few of our comments:

1.  Get rid of filter words–He thought.  He saw.  He wondered.  He felt.–Most times, if you hack them off, your sentence is stronger and you have internal dialogue.  You live inside the character’s head instead of being reminded that you’re outside of it.  It makes your writing more immediate.

2.  Get the sequence right.  Write your novel from beginning to end without jumping around.  Start at the inciting incident and use cause and effect to reach the end.  Flashbacks are fine, in moderation, but most novels benefit from “this happened, so that resulted…,” etc.

3.  Don’t play it too safe.  Take risks.  Push your characters closer to the edge.  See how they react, what they decide to do.  Make them more real.

4.  Voice matters.  “Hear” your characters so that, even if you don’t use tag lines, each character will be distinct.  Your characters shouldn’t all “sound” alike.  And let the voice of each story fit its mood, the tone for that world.

5.  First chapters are killers.  If you get one right on the first try, do a happy dance and celebrate, because you got just plain lucky.

6.  POV depends on which character has the most to lose.  Single POV and multiple POV both work.  It depends on what kind of story you want to tell.  Multiple POV can build more tension.  It can show a few different characters all working toward the same ending for different reasons, in different ways.  Together, their storylines build to a crescendo.

7.  Show, don’t tell.  Writers always hear that advice because showing is what brings a story to life, so that a reader lives the story alongside the protagonist.  How do you show instead of tell?  This is an article that might help:

8.  Use active instead of passive verbs.  Every writer knows this, but we all slip into passive or weak verbs when our brain’s tired and we don’t have enough energy to be more specific and search for the strongest verb we can use to bring a scene to life.  But strong verbs make for strong scenes.

9.  Use short, punchy sentences for action scenes.  And don’t skimp on these scenes.  Most writers build to battle scenes (verbal or action), and readers feel cheated if the “pay-off” scene is rushed.

These are just some of the comments from our NovelCon–things writers have probably heard over and over again.  But one more time never hurts.  Happy writing in February!