Use and Abuse of Passive Voice

elements of style william strunk eb white
[Source: Pearson]
Basically, passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that could be the object of an action becomes the subject. Passive voice permits permits subjects to have something done to them by someone or something. For example, an active sentence would be “Our team won the trophy.” A passive one would be “The trophy was won by our team.”

 

In general, authorities urging good writing advise writers to use the active voice as often as possible. Among other things, in order to convey the same amount of information in the passive voice requires more words. In the example above, the passive voice required 7 words rather than 5. Using the passive voice is often labeled as flabbier, less direct, and wordier writing.
[Source: Andertoons]
But there are several reasons to use the passive voice. As writers, we should use all the tools at hand to achieve our ends.

 

[Source: Amazon]
Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.

 

—When the actor is unimportant or not worth mentioning (in the context). Cheering crowds were barricaded all along the race route.
—When the actor is unknown. Overnight, Thanksgiving food baskets were left on 205 doorsteps in low-income neighborhoods.

 

[Source: Almeida Theatre]
—When you want to hide the actor’s identify. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. When no agent is unidentified, no responsibility is claimed or allotted—passive voice can erase who or what performs an action.  On October 11, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon posted a powerful comment illustrating this aspect of the psychology of language. In part, he said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
 
—When you need to put the punch word or drama at the end of the sentence. In this instance, the agent is identified using a by-phrase. “Can you believe it? Earl was beaten up by his own son!”
 
 
—When the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted on. The abused child was starved nearly to death.

 

Passive voice is not necessarily limp. For example, “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, italics added)
 
—When the passive simply sounds better—often because of the modifiers creating long phrasesThe wedding was planned by Heavenly Options, event planners who specialize in weddings, birthdays, funerals, and anniversary dinners with a strong Christian theme.
 
use abuse passive voice
[Source: The Writing Rag]
Bottom line: If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice!

Do You Need a Gossip?

do you need gossip
In discussing toxic gossips, Lillian Glass says, “They are good at letting the cat out of the bag. They pick up more dirt with the telephone than they do with a vacuum cleaner. They have a keen sense of rumor.” Consider how such a character could advance your plot.
 
S/he could overhear something and pass it along because that’s what gossips do. Depending on your needs, what was overheard could be true or false. Depending on your plot, either could increase tension, and true gossip could provide a vital clue. Enough said.

 

A gossip often makes the hearer feel like a special confidante, getting privileged information—until and unless the hearer discovers s/he is only one of many.

 

Consider how the gossip disseminates the information: word of mouth, in person or by phone; email or text; Facebook or other social media. The spoken word is, of course, the most deniable—also the most vulnerable to alteration or exaggeration in the retelling.

 

do you need gossip
Consider the character of the gossip. The one basic truth about the character of the habitual gossip is that s/he needs to feel important. In addition, the gossip does not truly disclose information about him/herself. But beyond that, what typifies him/her? Some possibilities include insecure, belittling, competitive, hurtful, self-righteous, sneaky, mean-spirited, angry, lonely—and the list goes on. Depending on what you choose, the gossip could be an object of humor, pity, or dislike to your reader.

 

Consider the gossip’s relationship to your protagonist. The likelihood is that a gossip would be a secondary character in your story. Is s/he a friend, neighbor, coworker, family member, employee? Is s/he a one-off or a recurring character in a series?

 

Last but not least, remember that s/he who brings, carries. The gossip could be a great channel for passing information or misinformation among characters by telling A about B and then telling B about A.
do you need gossip
These are only some of the ways a gossip could enrich your cast of characters. Can you think of others?

Quirks for Your Characters

quirks characters
This isn’t common wisdom for writers.  It’s my personal bias. But I always appreciate characters who, on some dimension or other, are a bit unusual. In other words, give them some habits that are, if not unique, at least uncommon.

 

I recently wrote about verbal tics. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond repeated words or phrases. I’m talking about behaviors your character consciously engages in repeatedly or ritualistically. Here are some possibilities to get you started.

 

quirks characters toothbrush toothpaste
Standing on one foot and then the other while brushing her/his teeth as a means of improving balance

 

Every time s/he goes into the bathroom, doing push-ups against the vanity as a means of building upper body strength

 

quirks characters bird flying
Taking two handfuls of birdseed to the front of the apartment building morning and night to encourage the pigeons and any other miscellaneous birds—even though neighbors bemoan the droppings

 

Setting aside personal possessions to send for birthdays and holidays because it’s easier than going shopping

 

Eating French fries and green salad with his/her fingers

 

quirks characters french fries ketchup
Wearing sweatpants and t-shirts as pajamas so that s/he can be seen at the mailbox or picking up the newspaper and look dressed for the day

 

Filling the entire patio with pots of herbs (such as basil, dill, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, parsley, tarragon) to support cooking from scratch, having bought local

 

Choosing to drink scotch/bourbon/whatever from a measuring glass marked in both ounces and milliliters

 

A character quirk is NOT the same thing as OCD. An obsessive/compulsive disorder compels the person to do it or suffer extreme anxiety, distress, and/or disability. While compulsions can make for interesting characters, creating an OCD for your protagonist can also produce unintended complications of plot and/or action.

 

Bottom line: Use all the means at your disposal to create interesting, believable characters.

Borrowing: Names, Characters, Ideas?

girl takes eye eye
My first thought upon seeing this ad was that I’ll check it out. I greatly enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s original series, despite the raw scenes—which in my opinion forwarded both the plot and the character development. When reading the trilogy, I often pondered how he could violate all the accepted no-nos of writing wisdom and still be a raging success. He started slow. He introduced seemingly unrelated people and events. Information known to the reader was frequently repeated almost verbatim as one character informed another of events, history, etc. Thus, we have a sterling example of success in spite of rule-breaking. Clearly, Larsson did something right!

 

My second thought was to suggest that my readers write something—scene, short story, whatever—based on an admired work. But before doing so, I wanted to determine whether I was suggesting something illegal—or at least unethical. But how could that be? What about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or any fan fiction published by the ton?

 

girl kicked hornets nest stieg larsson
[Source: Goodreads]
Here’s what I found. 1) Anyone can use a name for a character or a book. They can’t be copyrighted. However, as a general rule, you should ask yourself why you would want to name your character Scarlett O’Hara or Captain Blye. Why would you want to title your book Gone With the Wind when any online search would have you at the bottom of hundreds of links to the original?

 

2) No one can copyright a stock character. The moon-eyed teenager, the sadistic rapist, the strong but silent hero, beautiful and buxom arm candy, etc.

 

3) No one can copyright an idea. Anyone can safely write a book about a young boy who has magical powers that he uses to combat evil. Anyone can write a dapper super-sleuth enamored with a brainy, independent, vulnerable woman.

 

So when do we get into problems? When the characters are easily identifiable as Harry Potter, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Vane—or any sufficiently distinctive character created by a copyrighted author.

 

late scholar dorothy sayers
[Source: Amazon]
When the original author is no longer producing, sometimes others take up the mantle. Jill Patton for Dorothy L. Sayers, Felix Francis for his father, and (presumably) David Lagercrantz for Steig Larsson. These authors have the permission of the copyright holders (presumably the estate) to go forth and use the fully defined and described characters, acting in characteristic ways in new situation.

 

So consider whether you want to take another’s creation and make it your own!
 
girl spiders web david lagercrantz
[Source: Collider]

Why Lie?

everybody lies seth stephens davidowitz
Actually, that’s a dumb question. People (and characters) lie when they want to make others believe something that isn’t true. Behind that generalization there can be all sorts of motives, both benign and malicious.

 

seven little white lies jabari osaze
Benign lies are often called white lies, or little white lies. These are presumably innocuous lies, perhaps to ease a social situation, e.g., “Don’t worry, Marcie, that dress makes you look ten pounds thinner.”

 

liane moriarty big little lies
For writers, benign lies are useful as character notes but also—and perhaps more interestingly—because they often go awry.

 

black lies alessandra torre
If you go by the book titles, lies come in two sizes and two colors: big or little, black or white. But as writers, we all know that lies are much more complex.
 
truths half truths little white lies nick frost
Consider the multiple ways that people can be led to believe something that isn’t true.
 
big fat enormous lie
First, there are lies of commission: the flat-out statement of an untruth. A character directly and intentionally says something that the reader knows or subsequently learns is untrue. “I already walked the dog.” “Jack ate the last cookie.” “I saw Mary with the gun still in her hand.”
kept secret half truth nonfiction
Then there are lies of omission: concealing all or part of the facts. In courtroom parlance, this is known as withholding evidence. The character reveals only as much truth as circumstances compel.
half truth is often a whole lie
One of the most useful ways for creating a wrong belief is what I call lies by false conclusions. These often begin with such phrases as I heard, I read somewhere, everyone’s saying, etc. Then the speaker says something like, “I don’t know if it’s true or not” and then ends by asserting the opening statement as fact. For example, “I was down at the Town Tavern last night and I overheard a guy saying he saw Mary Beth Jones and Joe Smith going into the Cadillac Motel. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But poor Bob Jones has no idea his wife is two-timing him.”
little book big lies tina lifford
Then there are lies by false labeling. An example of this would be referring to a 39-year-old as a “young man” or “my little sister” to create an image of someone more innocent or naive than his or her behavior suggests. Other examples would be calling a drunken soiree a cocktail party, labeling a fender-bender a car crash, etc. In short, it’s choosing language that either minimizes or enhancesan incident or person in order to mislead.

 

katie woo big lie
As a writer, it would serve you well to perfect the art of the lie!
 

Verbal Tics— Use and Abuse

donald trump speaking
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)]
“Trump has several verbal tics. One is that when he’s trying to flatter and finagle, everything is beautiful: countries, cities, people, bills, questions, even chocolate cake.” This sentence from New York Times op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow (July 17, 2017) brings to the fore both the use and abuse of verbal tics.

 

Trump’s use of “beautiful” is abuse in two ways. First, any word or phrase used frequently and indiscriminately becomes meaningless. The listener/reader quickly realizes that it comes from habit, not thought. Writers should be aware that besides being meaningless, such repetition—particularly in narrative—is boring.

 

donald trump verbal tics
Second, any word as vague as beautiful—or ugly, dreadful, lovely, disgusting, frightening, etc—tells the listener/reader a reaction, but not the reason for it. For writers, the lesson here is that such vagueness doesn’t engage the reader. To do that, be specific: describe what your character is seeing, hearing, etc., that caused the conclusion. Often, it’s best to drop the conclusion altogether and let the reader react.

 

verbal tics use abuse
And what about the use of verbal ticks? I can think of only one: they are great character notes. Depending upon the repeated word or phrase, they can convey education level, social class, and even age. Consider the impact of “precisely” versus “golly gee.”

 

verbal tics use abuse
People use only a tiny fraction of the vocabulary they comprehend. Everyone has verbal habits, including tics. I have to be aware not to overuse the word “great.” As a writer, be aware of your favorite words and use them sparingly! That’s where a good thesaurus comes in.

Treasure Trash

treasure trash writing problems
We’ve all been there. I’d bet nearly everyone who’s written a book has edited out not just words, but paragraphs, scenes, or entire chapters. Don’t delete chunks of text. Something made you write that in the first place. It might be a neat characterization of someone who disappears from the plot. Maybe an atmospheric scene setting. Maybe a tangent that is entertaining but doesn’t move the plot forward. Maybe an interesting fact that isn’t necessary or even helpful here. Instead of deleting, move those chunks to a new file named something like “Out-takes from (name of work).”
 
There are two advantages to this. 1) It makes it easier to cut the flab (anything that doesn’t fit this piece of work), sometimes known as killing your darlings. 2) Those chunks may come in handy in the future, either as additions to as sparks for something totally new.

 

treasure trash
Save abandoned writing. Most of us have early works that were crap. (I considered titling this blog Keep the Crap.) These could be papers written as far back as high school or college, or maybe stories started but never finished well—i.e., put aside for whatever reason.  My story “Closet Bio” (which will be published in Adanna Literary Journal  in September) is such a resurrected piece. Taking a fresh look at old stuff sometimes sparks a fresh twist, or revisions to make the language zing. I’m currently submitting “Friends of the Heart”—which started as half of a piece about weird hobbies.
 
treasure trash
 
At the least, periodically rereading old writing is gratifying. You can either pat yourself on the back and say, “Damn! That’s pretty good,” or “Damn! I’ve come a long way.”

 

treasure trash

Knowing Your Place

I usually pitch all the “stuff” that comes with the newspaper without a second glance. But not this time!
discover richmond funny skies
The August/September issue of Discover Richmond is a treasure trove for readers and writers!

 

The cover story, about Richmond’s TV weather forecasters, is amusing. But—for me—the other articles are better. Anyone interested in off-beat information would agree. For example, one segment of the “Archive Dive” is about a Reynolds Metals aluminum submarine. It was active in the 1960s and is now housed at the Science Museum of Virginia.

 

gravel hill
The long article on Gravel Hill is about a community in Henrico founded by freed slaves over 200 years ago.

 

Another lengthy article describes five historic bells in Richmond: St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Carillon in Byrd Park, Centenary United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Capitol Square Bell Tower. Besides general interest, knowing about the bells, when and why they ring, would be great details for stories set in Richmond!

 

weather civil war
I recently wrote a short story mystery in which a lunar eclipse during the Civil War was a key element, so naturally I was taken with the article “Weather and the Civil War.” Naturally, the same weather could be a great obstacle or a helpful defense, depending on one’s objective.

 

From articles on African American Vernacular English to the James River to the 1973 gubernatorial race, this issue of Discover Richmond is a treasure trove! If you haven’t read it already, do!
weather civil war table contents

The Upside of Fear

upside fear blue woman
We are prone to assume that fear is a bad thing—but not so for writers! Giving your characters fears is just one more way to make them real.

 

I’ve been on a character jag recently, writing about birth order, secrets, and exercises to better understand your characters and build realistic ones. Lately it seems that everywhere I look I find another tidbit. Such was my reaction to this article in the Ohio University alumni magazine.
i fear therefore i create
This half-page article is about the book Fear, illustrated by Julia Elman, a professor of visual communication. It is absolutely relevant to writers. As Elman says,  “…we live in a world where fear is a driving force. Fear sells, persuades, and makes us snap to attention.” I will add that giving your characters fears makes them more real.

 

ohio today
Your character’s fear could be a big one—in which case, it might be shared by many. The end of the world as we know it or other cataclysmic disaster is a staple in the action/adventure/suspense genre.

 

ohio today
More personal fears are more generally relevant to character building. Here, the prime example is fear of failure. But it could also be a fear of death or personal disaster that drives much of a character’s behavior, especially in the mystery genre.

 

ohio today
Fear of loss is a great one. It can lead to all sorts of desperate measures to prevent a loved one ending a relationship, a child from leaving home, an employee becoming irrelevant…

 

Personal fears can be anything, from a debilitating phobia to a source of humor. Consider the agoraphobic, so fearful of open spaces that s/he can’t leave the house. On the other hand, someone who fears insects could go to comic extremes to protect, home and garden. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Give at least some of your characters fears that advance the plot.
 
upside fear ohio today
For more on creativity, see the Summer 2017 issue of ohio today.

Off-Beat Character Building

I recently wrote about the advantages of giving your characters secrets and of considering the effects of birth order. But how else do you really know your characters and make them richer?
 
Finding books with titles like Building Better Characters is easy. Some such books include pages of questions to answer about your protagonist, everything from physical appearance to favorite foods to religion.

My advice is to go beyond the usual. Here are six off-beat approaches to knowing your characters better.
off beat character building best dear abby abigail van buren
1) Write a letter from your character to an advice columnist of your choice. Make the advice requested relevant to your story.

other peoples love letters
2) Write a love letter from your character to a real or ideal romantic interest.

off beat character building not proud smorgasbord shame
3) Imagine your character’s most shameful act or experience. If it’s out of character, create a believable context or circumstance.

4) Create a personals ad for your character. Strive for originality. Include a picture.

off beat character building six drown saving chicken
5) Find a News-of-the-Weird story and write your character into it.

six word memoirs
6) Write one or more six-word memoirs capturing the essentials of your character’s life.
Last but not least: Write one or more of these bits into your actual story.