Like the name suggests, this prose is passive, the literary equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Let's take a look at what it is, and how to reduce our reliance on it.
The Passive Voice
By definition, passive voice occurs when the noun of a sentence that is being acted upon, becomes the subject of it.
Example: The building was destroyed.
Here, the it is the building that is being acted upon since it was destroyed by something. However, the way the sentence is written, we have no idea what caused the destruction. We've made the object being destroyed into the subject of the sentence. In other words, by saying "The building was destroyed" we are stating a fact. That is, we are telling the reader what happened, not showing the reader what happened.
A better way to show that the building was destroyed is to make the object of destruction the object again. We need a new subject for this sentence. Perhaps a bomb (subject) destroyed the building (object). Or spaceship (subject) blew up the building (object). And if we don't want to give away just yet who did it, we can write "An explosion destroyed the building", which is clearly just as effective. By adding that subject in the sentence, we instantly improve our writing by moving away from the passive voice and toward the active voice.
When To Use The Passive Voice
There are times when it makes sense to use the passive voice. Here's a hint: it's not when you're writing an action scene. Instead, we can use the passive voice for dramatic effect. In other words, when we're writing passively by intention, then it can be quite effective as long as we don't overdo it.
One of the more famous passages is Charles Dickens' introduction to A Tale of Two Cities.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." and so on. By any definition, this is telling the reader, not showing. This has the passive voice all over it. And yet, in this context, along with all the other "It was" sentences he uses, a dramatic impression is left with the reader because he writes this intentionally.
But can you imagine how boring a fight between Captain Kirk and Darth Vader would be if it was filled with lines like:
- The phasor cut into Vader's cloak.
- A lightsaber fell to the ground
- A rock was thrown across the starship.
So if you're not thrilled with your writing, especially your action scenes, take a look to see if you've been using the passive voice unintentionally and, if you have, make the necessary change to the active voice and watch your prose come alive.
Have you ever tried to write a novel only to find yourself getting frustrated and giving up after a few thousand words? Perhaps you've done some plotting and worked out characters, but can't quite bring yourself to ever finishing the thing?
Writing a novel is a huge project, a massive undertaking, that is always much harder to accomplish than we ever think. One of the reasons for this is the North American myth propagated by television... you know the one, where the writer sits down at her laptop one evening, opens the screen, types out "Chapter One" and within a day or two she has a full novel manuscript ready to become a best-seller.
Alas, the craft of writing, especially writing a novel, doesn't work that way. It is a lot of thinking, of practicing, of trying new things, of failing, of revising, editing, deleting, starting over, plotting and so on.
But if you're willing spend one or two hours per day for 90 days, I can show you how to write the first draft of an awesome page-turning novel. Here's how.
1. Plot your story from start to finish before ever writing
There are plotters and there are writers who write by the seat of their pants, without a guide or outline or anything. Very few can actually write that way. Most of us need to plot. So the most successful way I know of writing a story is to plot it out scene by scene, section by section. For example, in my Write Your First NOvel Now course, we use a plotting tool based on the Hero's Journey to map out an entire story before we ever start writing. And it works. Every time.
2. Write every day, no exceptions
Consistency is more important than time spent writing. If you only have an hour a day to write, make sure you honour that. Adjust your schedule for the next 3 months so you can get your writing in. At first, it will be difficult, but within a week or two, you'll be writing up a storm, getting into the flow of the craft, and generating amazing prose.
3. Don't stop to edit or revise... just keep writing
This is an important point because far too many of us start editing and revising each page we write. It's a sure fire way to get bogged down and to convince yourself that you're a bad person for thinking you could write, shame, shame, tut tut.
So the key here is to keep writing. This is your first draft, remember, so it's going to have inconsistencies and problems with sentence structure and such. That's okay. Tell that voice in your head - you know, the one that says, "You should use a semi-colon instead of a colon there!" - to relax. There will be time to edit and revise AFTER the first draft is done.
4. Embrace the process
The most difficult part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. It's not how great your characters are, or how well you plot, or anything else like that. If you can't get the story out of your head and on the paper, all those other things don't matter.
So for the next 90 days, embrace the process. Give yourself 2 weeks or so to plot out your story from start to finish (write me if you'd like a novel planning template), then jump right in! Remember, you won't be doing this for the rest of your life, just the next 90 days. You can do this!
By following those four tips above, you'll be writing a novel of 60,000 - 75,000 words in about 3 months. Yes, it's possible to do... I see it all the time in my novel writing workshops. And yes, there will be more work to do after, like editing and revising. But you'll get it done, which is more than most people can say who want to write a novel.
Feel free to comment on this article and share your own experiences with the process! And, if you liked this, please share it with your friends on social media.
If you'd like more info on how I use this process in my workshops, check out these current offerings.
There are several affordable apps available to help writers self-edit, like Grammarly and ProwritingAid among others. They all more or less do the same things but some are a little more user friendly than others.
I tried Grammarly, for example, and found it too invasive and annoying. That's why I use ProwritingAid, but I learned quickly that if I just followed what the app suggested, my writing would look like soup. You have to be smart about any of these apps, and trust your own instincts.
The best way to show you how to use PRowritingAid effectively and efficiently is to show you the demo and exactly how I use it for the "heavy edits" in my own writing. In this demo shown here, I walk you through a piece of my draft novel and illustrate the most important tools to use.
If you'd like to try this app out for free, just click this link and sign up.
Got an opinion on this? Leave a comment, share the link, and start the conversation...
I remember it was around this time last year when Nick Forster asked me if I thought he was ready to tackle writing a novel. He’d participated in several of my 4-week workshops (mystery and suspense, sci fi and fantasy, young adult) but tackling a 75,000 word novel is a much larger project than a 3,000 word short story.
Well, I encouraged Nick to take the Write Your First Novel Now workshop because I knew he could write in sections and I knew he was able to write without letting fear get in the way too much.
Before the workshop was over, he’d written the first draft of his novel Marine Space: The Fury of Xero Nekton. It was so much fun reviewing his sections in the workshop, and everyone loved this high-action space opera romp through the galaxy.
I'm thrilled to say that Nick’s book is now available on Amazon. He went from a story idea to a first draft in about 10 weeks, and now the finished story is out there in the world.
It’s time to celebrate… congratulations Nick!
I asked Nick if he would share his novel-writing experience with the group... here's the interview:
What inspired you to try writing a novel?
I have a lot of ideas that I wanted to share. A novel is a good way to do that. Nobody else is going to tell me what to write, just me. Although I started a book in 1999 called The Tired Guy, it was not until a couple of years ago that I decided to start writing again. I started another novel but very quickly wrote myself into a corner. It was then that I saw an ad for one of David’s science fiction short story workshops. I promptly signed up, and after enjoying it so much, took a few more that year. I was going to continue with short stories for a while, but gambled on the novel workshop instead, even though I doubted my abilities. In fact, even after signing up and starting to write, it wasn’t until I was well into the first draft that I really started to believe I could actually do it.
What was the hardest thing about writing a novel?
The hardest things about writing a novel were overcoming doubt and finding enough time to write. Days off writing tended to take the story from my mind and made it harder to return. It was in these times that I doubted myself and the story, whether it was good enough, or if I was wasting my time. Sometimes I would hit a rough patch, a poorly-planned section, and it would be very difficult to write. That’s when the self-doubt would kick in. Also, a few days off meant re-reading everything you’d already written to get back into the story.
Can you describe the habits or things you did that helped you finish your story?
Stick to it! I started getting up early and writing for at least an hour before work. This got easier because I found I would wake up with ideas and want them to get them down before forgetting. Also, I replaced bad habits with good, writing instead of watching TV, for instance. Replacing weekend chores with writing also helped tremendously, as getting two or three sections in a row really helped build momentum. Luckily, I don’t have kids, so I have more time for this kind of thing. Heh heh. It sounds pretty cliché, but the more I did, the easier it got, and the faster I became. I also had mini deadlines for myself. Like I wanted to have the first draft done before the workshop was over, and I also wanted to have the second draft done by July 1st. I luckily had a week off work in June which helped me accomplish that, but it was mainly by getting up early anyway. The more I wrote, the less I was able to sleep, which also helped with the getting up early part. The help, feedback, advice, and encouragement given by fellow workshoppers was also a very key piece of the puzzle.
What advice would you give to those who are thinking about writing their own novel?
Think of an idea and do it. Planning is key. Know your characters. Invest time in the plot/section planning. Invest the time daily. My biggest stumbling blocks occurred when I came across a poorly-planned or vague section and had to come up with 1250 words on it. A well-planned section practically writes itself, and I could do the first draft of it in one session. But my biggest advice would be to have fun. Pick something that interests you and will enjoy spending time thinking and writing about because it takes a lot of time! But if you like it, then it is like recreation, not work, so it doesn’t matter that it takes time. Also, don’t dwell on quality when you are writing the first draft. Speed helps (not the pills :). Type fast, get the story down in black and white. Fix it later. Get involved in a workshop or group of writers and meet regularly to help each other.
Some sound advice on getting that first novel written... thanks Nick!
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One of the more common things I see new writers do is to try telling the reader every single detail about a scene or a character or a theme. They think the reader “won’t get it” if they don’t include all that information. This implies the reader isn’t clever enough to understand your brilliance, so you have to insert yourself into the story and walk them through it. But readers don’t like this.
I'm not talking about Kurt Vonnegut inserting himself as the creator in a story to make some metafictional point. That is something different. What this is about is the belief that unless you explain things to your reader in great detail, they won't recognize your brilliance.
I don’t think writers intentionally do this, but I know there are times when we all want to show readers how brilliant our prose is, or how sharp our plotting is. Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.
Why not trusting your reader is problematic
The problem with not trusting the reader is two-fold: first, it insults them. As readers, we love to figure things out, to make our own connections, to visualize what the characters look like and so on. One of the reasons why mysteries are so popular is because the reader gets to figure out who dunnit too. By telling readers too much, writers take that level of engagement away from them.
Second, it breaks the flow of the story. Readers know when you’re inserting yourself into the prose to teach and preach. And if the flow of reading is broken, your reader engagement is lost. When readers become disengaged, they put the book down and may never pick it up again.
How to identify when you’re not trusting the reader
Sometimes it’s difficult to notice when you, as a writer, aren’t trusting the reader. It’s like everything else with our stories: we become attached to them, and blind to the errors we’ve made. So the best thing to do is to make sure others read your story. If they’re honest and sincere, they will tell you when they recognize a certain preachiness in the writing.
Whenever the narrator or a character goes over the top explaining something, you know you’re not trusting the reader. As a writer, you may think you’re doing the reader a favour by telling them how all the dots join up, but readers don’t like this. We like to figure things out on our own.
So, if you find your explaining too much or getting preachy and teachy, that’s when you should have a close look at your prose and start cutting words out.
The story is never finished until it’s read
Lastly, trying to tell or explain to the reader everything that’s going on is impossible. As a writer, you may have a certain idea in your head about what’s going on, but every reader will pick up something a little different that you never thought of. It’s because each reader brings their own personal and unique experience to the story when they read it. They create the theatre of the mind based on places they’ve been, and people they know. In fact, the reader completes the story you began writing.
Because of this, it’s impossible for a writer to portray exactly everything they want in a story. It’s why describing someone as a “tall, brown-eyed woman with shoulder-length hair” is far more effective than describing every single detail about what she looks like and what she’s wearing.
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One of the challenges many new writers face is how to write compelling dialogue so characters don’t sound so stiff. Inevitably what happens is a conversation (or confrontation) between a couple of characters in your story looks more like interview or an interrogation.
“You disgust me!” she said.
“Back off, honey, or I’ll burn the toast.
“Go burn the whole meal, for all I care. You’re not a chef anyway.”
“Oh yeah, well, just for that I’m never ordering pizza again.”
“Suits me fine. But don’t expect a cake for dessert.”
There's potential in that scene because of the tension, but sheesh could it be any less dull?
Here’s a way to immediately improve your dialogue without a ton of effort. I use the Feelings – Action – Dialogue approach.
Step 1: Feeling
Before your character says their words, have him feel something. Example:
Step 2: Action
Now have him do something, take some kind of action.
Step 3: Dialogue
Finally, it’s time to put words in the character’s mouth.
Here are some more examples:
Mary felt a chill run up her spine. (feeling)
She tossed the letter into the fire. (action)
“You’ll never know the truth now!”
Terror shivered down Roscoe’s spine. (feeling)
He stood perfectly still. (action)
“If you press that button, the entire planet will be destroyed.”
Of course, you can mix these up too, so that you might start off with dialogue, then show a character’s feeling, and then an action: This would be D-F-A.
Or you may simplify it to A-D or F-D, depending on the situation. The point is, by adding feelings and actions to your dialogue, your prose will soar and your story will instantly be more interesting.
Here are a couple of examples from successful authors doing exactly this.
This is from Ted Dekker's book "Obsessed". I like this example because he also shows how Stephen is affected by the news.
This is from the book "Cyclops" by adventure writer Clive Cussler. Here, he uses Action - Feeling - Dialogue really effectively to build tension at the end of a chapter.
Cool, don’t you think?
So let’s take another look at that opening scene with the couple arguing in the kitchen. How would you re-write is using F-A-D?
“You disgust me!” Mary crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared at him. (A) An overwhelming sense of disappointment rose in her gut. (F)
John shook his head. (A) “Back off, honey, or I’ll burn the toast.
“Go burn the whole meal, for all I care. You’re not a chef anyway.” She moved to the kitchen window and looked out over the backyard (A). How did her life come to this? (F)
The pain of losing his best friend shook his body (F). John gently placed the ladle on the kitchen counter, sighed deeply, and whispered, (A) “Oh yeah, well, just for that I’m never ordering pizza again.”
Mary smiled to herself (F) and turned around to face him (A). He looked so handsome and helpless in that ugly old apron (F). She wrapped her arms around his waist and said, (A) “Suits me fine. But don’t expect a cake for dessert.”
Three simple steps to improving your dialogue!
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On the subject of science fiction short stories, where do we even begin? There is a massive amount of material in the science fiction megatext, and a large percentage of it is based in the short story form.
My belief is that the short story form is an integral part of the success that the science fiction genre has seen. Moreover, the short story has played a critical role in the exploration of visionary ideas and the genre’s rise in popular culture. Without the short story, science fiction would not be life as we know it, Jim.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more influential short stories in the science fiction genre. I won’t call these the “best” or the “top 100” stories because for many of us, that’s a personal taste. But we can look at these stories with respect to their influence on other writers, on the genre as a whole, on literary analysis, and on popular culture.
19th Century Short Stories
If we look closely enough – and because a definition of “science fiction” is nebulous and ever-changing – we can trace elements of the genre back through to ancient Greek writing. For that matter, some believe that our ancient holy scriptures have more in common with science fiction metaphor than they do anything divine… but I digress!
Let us begin with the rise of modern science, also known as natural philosophy, in the 19th century.
Many readers are familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s early writing delving into the macabre, but few realize he was one of the first “science fiction” writers (of course, his work was not categorized as SF because the genre didn’t exist then!), bridging early scientific principles with magic, psychology, and voyages fantastiques. Yes, he was influenced by Jules Verne’s stories like many others in his time, and a close reading of Poe’s early short stories reveals this influence.
But never mind… there he was in the 1840s tackling topics like communicating with the spirit world, bringing dead people back to life through galvanism, travels to the moon, and so on. And here we are today still studying those early works.
Then there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter”, written in 1844, about a mad scientist who renders his daughter poisonous to the touch, presumably to protect her from the boys. Well, it’s a trope that is still alive in old Star Trek episodes and in the Batman character “Poison Ivy”. Indeed, the merging of science fiction and comic books is well-entrenched.
Early 20th Century Writings
When H.G. Wells wrote the “The Star” in 1899, did he have any idea that his little story would influence future generations of writers, scientists, philosophers, and film-makers? Or how about E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”? This dark, dystopian view of a mechanized world bereft of what makes us human, written in 1914 during the height of modernism, keeps echoing through sci fi discussion groups and book clubs. It even inspires short films like this one.
The rise of the pulp fiction stories in the 1930s helped popularize SF stories with generations of teenage boys in particular. All those bug-eyed monsters running amok, and the space operas (westerns situated on Mars, for example) that influenced the Star Wars industry, among others.
But more importantly, the origins of the pulps in technical and scientific hobbyist magazines gave rise to a dialogue between writer and reader that was unlike any other genre. Fans would communicate regularly with authors and artists, and this community developed that contributed immensely to the megatext and to the popularization of the genre.
The Golden Years of Science Fiction Short Stories
In the mid-20th century, science fiction short stories truly became literature in the sense that they tackled serious themes and pushed the edges of what could be published. Stories about robots taking over (again with the robots running amok!), nuclear annihilation, early gender-bending experiences, space travel and so on.
Throughout this maturity, writers continued to focus on what it meant to be human in an increasingly dangerous, troublesome world.
Now, science fiction short stories continue to remain popular despite the amount of TV shows and science fiction films. We see the influence of science fiction in everything from adventure movies to comic books, graphic novels, anime and video games.
Today’s writers continue to delve into themes of what it means to be human, and this trope has remained throughout the history of the genre. All aspects of our humanity are exposed and explored, from our behaviour, treatment of each, sexuality, intellectuality, social systems, politics, and so on.
One of the wonderful things about science fiction as a genre and the short story as a form is that a limitless number of ideas can be presented in a way that allows us readers to explore them in our way and within the context of our own experiences.