Sherry Weddle writes,
One area I seem to have problems with is passive writing. I have to work to make my first draft more active, and it takes too much time! I’d like to be able to write, not just the exciting, action scenes, but the rest of the story without being passive.
Hi, Sherry, and thanks for your question. This is a common problem in romance because so much emphasis is placed on the characters’ internal states. We all like to read a good, emotional, even angsty story, but all that emotion needs something to anchor it. Pages and pages of “I wonder what he thinks of me” just doesn’t make for a strong narrative. All that emotional analysis is in danger of feeling disconnected, like a free-floating thought bubble, without something to anchor it to the page.
And that anchor is action.
Now, let’s define what we mean by action. There are two ways this term is used, and both are relevant if you want to avoid passive writing.
First, action can refer to action scenes in which a particular activity is the point of the scene. Think about fight scenes, sex scenes, chase scenes, and the like. The activity – fighting, making love, fleeing – is the basis for the entire scene. Remove the activity, and the scene no longer exists.
Do you have enough of these scenes to sustain the book? How many is enough? For romance, the number is probably fewer than for other kinds of genre fiction, but that doesn’t mean that a light touch is best. Err in favor of action, and your book will feel more dynamic. Here’s one tip for figuring out if you have the right blend of action scenes and introspection or emotion. Count them. Yes, sounds simple, doesn’t it? Count them in your manuscript, and count them in a sample of books from the line you’re targeting. If you’re having trouble figuring out where scenes start and end and how to count pieces of scenes, then count pages instead. A rough estimate is okay. After all, you’re not calibrating a nuclear submarine but are just trying to figure out if your book is dynamic enough.
Action scenes are the first type of action. Second, action can refer to movement or activity within another type of scene such as a sequel or a dialogue scene. These are smaller bits of character movement that can ground a scene. Remember the formula for a scene? A scene is composed of
1- Purposeful character(s)
2- in motion
3- against a background.
Action fits into the second prong of the formula. (So does dialogue, but don’t think this is a substitute for real action. It’s not.) Even if the point of the scene is something quiet and contemplative, there still must be motion.
Let’s look at an example. Our heroine Jane Survivor has promised to meet the hero, Detective Rake, at a coffeehouse to discuss some of the details of her sister’s disappearance. But the last time they were together, Rake tried to kiss her, and then she saw him leave in a sportscar driven by a glamorous young girl. Rake’s arm was draped across the back of the girl’s seat, and he toyed with her long hair as he leaned close to talk to her.
Now Jane believes that Rake is, well, a rake. She’s at home, and she’s trying to decide whether to honor her promise to meet Rake for coffee. Is this a date or a business meeting? She has to puzzle it out and decide how to handle herself in advance.
You could have pages of Jane’s thoughts as she sorts through the details. It might even be crucial to the plot that she does exactly this. But how do you make it less like free-floating thought bubbles and more like a scene?
Give her something to do. Put her in motion, but make that motion meaningful. Before you even start writing the scene, brainstorm some activity she can do which would be symbolic of her inner state. Is she running at top speed on the treadmill as a way of burning off some stress and confusion? Is she finely dicing vegetables as a way of getting some control over the details? Is she trying on six different outfits and spending half an hour on hair and makeup, all the while denying that she’s interested in him?
Once you have your symbolic activity selected, the rest should be fairly easy. Just weave the activity into the interior monologue – the “thinking” parts – so that you avoid having pages of free-floating thoughts. Ground those thoughts with action but make sure those actions are made important by their symbolic weight.
I have one final tip for making your pages feel more active: limit exposition. It’s a pace-killer. It’s often necessary to fill in the reader on backstory or to compress narrative by “telling” rather than “showing” minor details. But that doesn’t mean you have the luxury of spinning out long explanations about your research (as Melville did in Moby Dick). Nix the narrative wanderings. Keep your transitions short and tight. Remember that your job is to entertain and to engage the reader’s emotions.
Any questions? Post them in the comments and we’ll tackle them together. And don’t forget, if there’s a topic you want me to address, send your questions to email@example.com and you might be featured in a column!
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