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Passive Plots (and How to Avoid Them) *Wordcraft and Scribery*

December 22, 2017

 

"You use too much Passive Voice!" 

 

If this sounds familiar, congratulations! You're a writer, Harry.

 

Welcome to another episode of:

 

Ellie Raine's School of Wordcraft and Scribery! 

 

We're all guilty of using passive voice at some point or another, so if you've been told the above statement, don't panic! Or, erm, do panic? Whatever motivates you to Avada Kedavra that junk out as fast as possible.

 

But don't sweat it too much, okay? We've all been there, even the most successful, experienced and renowned writers are subject to succumb to it (sometimes intentionally, when it's a segway sequence that has zero importance to the plot and would otherwise be quite boring). 

 

So, how do you spot passive voice? Well, one must first understand what passive voice is.The first type of passive voice is in regards to sentence structure. For example:

 

The dress was worn by the girl.

And

The dress had been worn by the girl.

 

These are passive sentences, defined as when the subject of the sentence is acted on the verb.  Compare these to their active sister:

 

The girl wore the dress.

 

Straight to the point, no zig-zagging and arduous paths to reach the point of the sentence.

 

Of course, these are only grammatical examples. What writers must eventually learn is that there are covert, passive-active sentences (Yes, I know it's not a real term. This is my own name for when an active sentence is encumbered with extra words such as was and had when they're not needed) which may be grammatically correct, but can be considered 'cluttered' and 'bulky'. It's an editor's job to cut out the clutter and trim the fat, but that's no excuse for a writer to neglect trimming it themselves as much as they can before sending it out. An example of these passive-active sentences is such:

 

He had gone to the store. (Past Perfect)

And

He was going to the store. (Past Progressive)

 

Both are active sentences, and while they're correct and have their uses in your novel where needed, there may be times when you want to trim these down to their more simple forms:

 

He went to the store. (Simple Past)

 

A simple, easy change, but this difference cut out a word--which is a good thing (trust me). More efficient, more punctual and it gets to the bloody point. Your editors will typically alert you to these clutter words if they're not needed, but why make it harder on them, yeah? Comb through your manuscript and eliminate these passive sentences as much as you can before sending it out. Your editor will thank you, I promise.

 

**Note: This applies to present and future tense as well.**

**Also note: When using past tense, Past Perfect sentences are typically better off used to describe something that had happened farther in the past (see what I did there?) rather than as the "currently happening" version of Simple Past sentences.**

 

However, the passive sentence is not as big a deal as some may believe. Yes, it's important, but we've all published works crammed with passive voice at some point in our professional lives. I still cringe at all the passive sentences in my first works when I read back--but you know what? It doesn't matter much in the long run. Life goes on, you progress in your craft, and you learn how to spot those ugly warts quicker. Take deep breaths, in and out, and let it go. Maybe you can cut the clutter in the years to come in the next edition. Casual readers don't usually notice it or care about sentence structure anyway.

 

But you know what they do care about?

 

Plot. They care an awful lot about plot.

  

An active plot is far more important than a million active sentences, in my opinion. An active sentence structure can help your story flow, but if your plot is lacking, no one will want to read even the prettiest of prose. 

 

A lot of writers, new and experienced, overlook the deadly Passive Plot. 

 

Yep, that's right--passive voice doesn't just pertain to sentence structure (well, technically it does by definition, but you get what I mean). Think about it: what is happening in your story? Is your character staring at a wall, thinking back to what had happened to them, brooding over how sad they are because of this event that we never actually see in your story? That's a passive story--and the latter is what I call the "aftermath" story. 

 

An active story shows the event that caused your character to be sad and brooding. That's the story we want to see. The "aftermath" story can be nice as an afterthought, but that's all it is. Make it artistic, sure, we can appreciate beautiful prose, but if your story is boring, then you're not entertaining your audience as you (usually) aim to do. If you don't consider yourself an entertainer, then by all means, discard this and let your colors fly!

 

But those of you who do wish to entertain others and evoke emotions into your audience, beware the Passive Plot. 

 

**Note: It is also important to keep in mind that a character can be passive. You can tell when you have a passive character if your character waits for something to happen to them and doesn't act until forced to. But that's a whole 'nother can of wyrms.**

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