THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART II by Miko Johnston

PART II: Use action verbs

Many writers loathe passive verbs and avoid using them even when they should. How many times have you read a convoluted sentence constructed out of active verbs reinforced with adverbs and a string of adjective-enhanced nouns? An example of a writer torturing his prose, as well as the reader, because he believes the rule is more important than the readability.

Use action verbs instead of more passive wording whenever possible, but don’t assume using passive verbs always weakens prose. A brief, declarative sentence can carry a great deal of weight and meaning.  Look at any list of the greatest opening lines in literature and you’ll see examples that prove the point:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Orwell, 1984

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Hemingway, The Old Man And The Sea

These opening lines share not only a simplicity in their wording, but they instantly create a mood, both descriptively and emotionally. They prove you can create power in simplicity.

Next week, we’ll consider the role of adjectives and adverbs; do they help or hurt our writing?

3 thoughts on “THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART II by Miko Johnston

  1. Whether you use the active or the passive voice is determined by whether you want to emphasize the actor or the acted upon.

    I could have written: “If you want to emphasize the actor, use the active voice; if you want to emphasize the acted upon, use the passive voice.”

    I found a good example of when you want to emphasize the acted upon:

    “Earthquakes are usually caused when rock underground suddenly breaks along a fault. This sudden release of energy causes the seismic waves that make the ground shake.”

    Compare that with this:

    “When rock underground suddenly breaks along a fault it usually causes an earthquake. Seismic waves that make the ground shake are caused by this sudden release of energy.”

    Which version do you find clearer?

    1. When writing fiction, we must also consider what impact we want the sentence(s) to have – factual, emotional, visual. Case in point:

      March 18th is the day my mother died.
      My mother died on March 18th.
      March 18th, the day my mother died.

      The first two versions come across as factual, even though version two avoids a passive verb. The third version, to my mind, carries more emotional weight.

      1. Version 1 is in the active voice also. There is a misconception that “is” and “was” are always in the passive voice. The “is” in version 1 is a linking verb, not a passive verb.

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