Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mixing it Up

In poker, there are basically two ways you can play it - passively smooth-calling and checking or aggressively betting and bluffing. If done right, either way can win you money. But the most money is won by the player that mixes it up. The theory is it keeps the other players guessing what you're going to do next, and wondering if you're bagging a good hand or bluffing with a bad hand. If you're lucky, more often than not their guess at your hand is wrong and you're raking in their dough.

With writing, the two ways you can write it are passive and active. Unlike poker, though, it seems like the trend is that you can never play it passive. While I do agree that a book written entirely in passive will end up being about as interesting as oatmeal, I don't think passive voice should be left out entirely. You have to mix it up. A little active here, a little passive there - keep your reader wondering what's next and keep them hooked without a constant barrage of active sentences or a total snooze-fest of passive ones.

Years ago, when I was first learning about the whole writing craft thing, and this debate first jumped into my consciousness, I picked up a book by a major proponent of the active voice (who shall remain nameless). I read about three pages in before I had to put it down. Too much, too fast. The whole plot was rapid-fire thrust into my brain. It felt like a book written for the A.D.H.D. club, and I'm not a member. For that matter, I don't want to be.

Sometimes writing in passive voice says something important about the characters and the story. Something you really need to get across without blatantly saying so-and-so is such-and-such. In the case of query letters, you only have so many words to accomplish your mission, and using passive voice to show that a certain character IS passive works much better, IMO than telling the reader so-and-so is a wimp, but she gets better. For example, I needed to use this device when I wrote the blurb for Blink. At the beginning, Mary is very passive - her world acts upon her and she really can't do anything about it. Over time, she becomes more active - and I think my blurb reflects this. Unfortunately, some agents are so anti-passive, I'm afraid the passive voice of those sentences would turn them off. *shrug*

As a reader, I like the ebb and flow of sentences. Sometimes a character does something, and sometimes something is done to them. That's the way the world works. Isn't it?

For instance:

"John was hit by a book." - passive
"A book hit John." - active

But can a book really be active? Watch for flying tomes? (Okay. In fantasy, maybe.) Think about a situation where the character really doesn't have any control - an earthquake perhaps, or a tornado. A writer could use passive voice to show how really helpless a character feels. Maybe John is huddled under a heavy object trying not to die, and he gets hit by a book. He is frightened by the trembling house. He is knocked to the floor by a gust of wind, or a powerful tremor, or by his dog - who's scared shitless, too. John feels like the world is acting against him; he feels like he has no control over his environment. He's passive.

But in the same situation, things are acting against him. So you mix it up. Huddled under his grandfather's massive oak desk, John is hit by the same copy of Moby Dick his father read to him as a boy. The wind whips his hair into his eyes, and the desk rocks. Above him, the roof creaks as the tornado whirls closer. As the heavy furniture begins to pull away from his grasp, he is knocked to the floor by an unknown force. He feels the fetid breath of hell upon his neck.

Not the best example, but you get the picture. All day every day, things happen. Sometimes we make them happen, and sometimes they happen to us. Active and passive.

Let's try another example (because it's fun and it's good exercise):

"She was hugged by her husband."
"Her husband hugged her."

IMO, the passive version leaves some things open for interpretation. Maybe she just sat there and let him hug her because she wasn't really a hugging kind of gal, or perhaps because she's pissed at him. It tells me something about her. The second sentence, while active, is kind of bleh to me.

Maybe it's a fine distinction. Or maybe it's just me. I want to see an author mix it up. A little roller-coaster and a little merry-go-round certainly makes the experience more enjoyable for me. And sometimes just sitting on a bench watching the people stroll past makes for a nice break from the action.

Time for you to chime in. Do you think I'm off my rocker? Can a book be all active, or do you like a mix?

1 comment:

Sean Ashby said...

Wow! Very good points, really. I've actually been thinking a lot lately about passive voice, and how to avoid it whenever possible. But I totally see your point now on how you can inflect entirely different meanings with it. And I agree about mixing it up, too, just like you'd mix up long and short sentences, dialogue and exposition, etc. Thanks!