Thursday, April 17, 2014

Don’t Be Passive: Stephen King Gives Advice

I almost titled this post in the passive tense, so thankfully I’m learning from Stephen King already. Not that this is new information by any means as I have a recurring waking nightmare of my elementary school teachers warning me about passive voice as they called it. Perhaps fear is a good motivator in this case.

King writes in his fantastic book about our craft, On Writing, “I think timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason time lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

Safe is a polite way to put it. Cowardly is another. I argue that writers who align with the passive voice are generally afraid of getting close to their characters and the worlds they inhabit. These writers see themselves as outsiders or lurkers of these words, and they don’t give their creations the respect that they deserve, the perception in the mind of the reader that they are tangible and real, that their faces are pressed up against you, breathing on you, inviting you into to their rising action, climax, and denouement.

King continues:

"I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow died in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them. What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid in on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake! Fugeddaboudit!

Two pages of the passive voice – just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction – make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about his: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man – who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea – sweeter and more forceful, as well – might be this: My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it. I’m not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we’re out of that awful passive voice."

With these simple and active revisions my mind sees the characters more crisply and I am more open to the possibility that they each have unique quirks and subtleties, just like you and me. How does either active or passive voice affect you as a reader? Is it intimidating to rub shoulders with your characters when you write your verbs actively? Too intense? Or is that the kind of punk rock prose that you live for?

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1 comment:

  1. Good reminder. I definitely slide into passive voice more than I would like. Steven King's book on writing has some solid advice.


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