Tag Archives: writing active sentences

Narrative Voice: Balancing Verbs, Modifiers, and Infinitives #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice and writing style. The unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences appeals to us, although we don’t consciously think of it that way.

In Monday’s post, Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style, I mentioned three components of an author’s voice:

  1. How the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. How the chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shape the pacing of our sentences.
  3. How our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character and plot arcs.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemToday’s post focuses on word choice. What do you want to convey with your prose? This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

Where we choose to place the verbs changes their impact but not their meaning. Also, the words we surround verbs with change the mood but not their intention.

But let’s look at how modifiers and infinitives fit into the written universe and visualize their place in our prose.

  • Modifiers are words that alter their sentences’ meanings. They add details and clarify facts, distinguishing between people, events, or objects.
  • Infinitives are mushy words, words with no definite beginning or end.

Both modifiers and infinitives are useful, and both have the power to strengthen or weaken our prose.

When doing revisions, I look at how I have placed my verbs in relation to nouns, modifiers, and infinitives in the first draft. My outline told me what the scene should detail but the words were written the way they fell out of my head.

Which tends to be in a passive voice.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543The second draft revisions are where I do the real writing. It involves finetuning the plot arc, character arcs, and most importantly, adjusting phrasing.

The tricky part is catching all the weak phrasing. Those of you who write a clean first draft are rare and wonderful treasures – I wish I had that talent.

When I find a stretch of passive phrasing, I reimagine the scene. I want to see how to strengthen the narrative and still keep to my original intention.

At times, nothing will work, and the scene must be scrapped.

A passive sentence is not “wrong.” No matter how active the phrasing, a poorly written sentence is not “better.”

Too many passive sentences slow the pacing, and readers don’t like that – but they do like a chance to breathe and absorb what just happened. So we mingle active and passive phrasing to keep things balanced.

And despite what the self-proclaimed gurus on Reddit might rant, good writing is about balance.

The ways we combine active and passive phrasing are part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose areas of emphasis and places in the narrative we want to direct the reader’s attention.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Some types of narratives should feel highly charged and action-packed. Most of your sentences should be constructed with the verbs forward if you write in genres such as sci-fi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers.

These books seek to immerse the reader in the emotion generated by the action, so most sentences should lead off with noun – verb or verb – noun, followed by modifiers and infinitives. You will have more active phrasing than passive: push, push, glide. The reader will adjust to the pacing rhythm you establish if you are consistent.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to immerse the reader in the character’s emotions. You create a sense of comfort and familiarity by manipulating the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer.

You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with an objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. You balance the active and passive sentence construction, so the narrative is slightly more relaxed than a thriller.

Passive construction can still be strong despite being poetic. A poor choice of words makes a sentence weak.

Has someone said your work is too wordy? An excess of modifiers could be the offenders.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022What clues should you look for when trying to see why someone says you are too wordy?

  1. Look for the many forms of the phrasal verb to be. They are words that easily connect to other words and lead to writing long convoluted passages.
  2. Look for connecting modifiers (still, however, again, etc.).

The many forms of to be (is, are, was, were) are easy to overlook in revisions because we habitually use them in conversation. They’re kryptonite in the prose of an action-based narrative.

In the first draft, I keep in mind that bald writing tells only part of the story. Regardless of my efforts, it slips in. This is because I am telling myself the story at that stage of development.

When revising the first draft, I sharpen my prose. I try to paint active word pictures of the mental images I visualized when I first wrote them, but without going overboard. I change the wording to use words that begin with hard consonants. They sound tougher and carry more power.

We all approach creativity differently, and what works for me might not work for you. However, the more you write, the more you will find your preferences and writing style changing in one direction or another.

One more thing about wordiness: the number of conjunctions and connecting modifiers we use contributes to wordiness and sentence length. My first drafts are littered with run-on sentences—me telling myself the story. I look for them when making revisions because long compound sentences can be confusing.

It’s a struggle. I rewrite some sections several times before I finally make them palatable.

If you are interested in a bit of homework, take a short paragraph from your work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

I have posted the following list of words before. I habitually use these morsels of madness in a first draft but wish I didn’t.

It takes forever, but I look at each instance and decide if they should remain or if they weaken the sentence. Ninety times out of a hundred, I change or remove them.

In the interests of keeping the post down to a reasonable length, this list is a picture. If you want to copy it, right-click on it, select “save as,” and choose either .jpeg or .png.

weak-words-LIRF04262022

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The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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