Tahlia says: All aspects of a novel are important, but the beginning is the most important because no matter how wonderful the story is or how scintillating further chapters are, if the first pages aren’t riveting, the rest will rarely be read. The beginning is where active writing is vital.
By “active” writing I don’t mean action in terms of plot—though a bit of action is a good way to start—I mean active in terms of prose; it’s using words in such a way that they paint a vibrant picture. You can have everything else in place for a great beginning, but if the prose is passive, it will still not have the punch it could have.
The terms passive writing and passive prose are not synonymous with “telling”. However, they do contribute to it and active prose is less likely to have a “told” feel even when you are telling. The important distinction is that the terms passive writing and passive prose do not refer to passive voice. Passive voice is only one example of passive prose.
Prose is particularly passive where the author does not specify the subject that does the action, or they place it after the action. Passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but when used in fiction, it isn’t very exciting. Prose peppered with it soon becomes dull.
Passive writing is more than just the use of passive voice. Your writing can be free of passive voice as defined above and still be passive writing. The trouble with passive writing is that it doesn’t engage the reader. It isn’t immediate, it doesn’t seem to happen now, and it doesn’t draw the reader into the action. The scene itself may be dramatic, but the writing leaves the reader outside the characters and the events. Such writing is uninviting, or rather cold, like a blind date with nothing to say. If you’re reading something that, despite feeling as if it should, just isn’t holding you, it may be because the writing is passive.
Once you know what to look for, passive writing is easy to spot. Here are some things to watch for.
The verb “To be”.
The verb “to be” and all its variations (be, am, are, is, being, was, were, been) are known as passive verbs. Prose with a lot of such bland verbs lacks immediacy and is less engaging than prose that uses more active verbs. “Was” and “were” get the most overuse. Your prose will improve if you replace them with a specific, active verb, or restructure the sentence to avoid them.
He was after her like a shot. (Passive.)
He raced after her like a shot. (Active.)
She was at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Passive.)
She stood at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Active.)
When I’m self-editing, I search for all those “was”es and “were”s and see if I can write the sentences better without them. I usually can. This one tip made a huge difference to the quality of my prose.
Using “was” or “were” or “is” or any other version of the verb “to be” along with a participle ending in “ing” is very passive. There are better alternatives. Replace these forms with a more active verb, or see how your sentence reads if you restructure the sentence to avoid it. Often it’s just a matter of replacing the “ing” ending participle with an “ed” ending one. The “ed” verb forms are more immediate than the “ing” ending forms.
She was running along the road.
She ran along the road.
He was skipping towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.
He skipped towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.
These examples of how to identify and fix passive prose are taken from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine. In this book you’ll find more tips on how to write actively.
Join Tahlia in the Short and Helpful Helpful Beginnings and Endings workshop for more insight on writing beginnings that will make readers want to read on, and endings that will make them want to leave a great review and read more of your work.
Award-winning author Tahlia Newland has written seven novels, one book of short stories and a book of writing tips—The Elements of Active Prose. She writes fantasy and magical realism with a touch of romance, and her writing, in its emphasis on the power of the mind, reflects her extensive experience in meditation. Three of her novels have won a BRAG Medallion and an Awesome Indies Seal of Excellence.