Thursday, June 24, 2010

Passive voice = Passive scene?

In the comments of the last post, someone suggested (or I interpreted :) that a lot of passive voice might mean that the scene is passive-- that you're not forcing your characters to be active and make choices and cause things to happen.

Think about that. Prose and action are intertwined-- that is, the action is told in prose, and so they can reflect each other. If there's a "passive" problem in my sentences, maybe the solution isn't fixing the sentences (or whining about how this is my voice and it's an assault on my human dignity to tell me to fix). Maybe I should be looking at the scene and specifically at what I'm requiring of my characters. If there's nothing happening in the scene that requires them to act, the POV character might just hang around and introspect and relate in retrospect what happened and ruminate about it. And the sentences will naturally reflect that lassitude and lack of urgency.

But if instead of making this scene take place in the POV character's head, I make it take place in the campaign headquarters or in the abandoned house or the kitchen. And I can make the character do something. And I bet the sentences will get more active, just because they have more to do when the character has more to do.

After all, Churchill felt the urgency of the situation, the need of the populace for motivation and reassurance, the potential for change. And that feeling empowered his sentences. Maybe for us, the trick is to create a situation that requires power, then feel that in the scene, and transmit it into the sentences. Then maybe we won't have to worry about passive sentences, because we're not being passive, and neither are our characters.

So often prose problems are symptoms of scene problems. :)



green_knight said...

I think you're touching on two extremely important concepts here: one, problems in the microstructure are often symptoms of macrostructure flaws; and all the polishing in the world is useless if you don't fix the underlying reason; and two, good writers will treat very few things as sacrosanct and always look out for ways to do what they set out to do while making their work accessible for more readers. Sometimes you need to draw lines in the sand; but very often you can find something _better_ if you look hard enough.

The 'having scenes in which something happens' thing is a major problem for me. I write _coming of age_ stories (of-sorts) and 'the character adjusts to new realisations' is a big part of that. One way of dealing with that is to split the realisation over several scenes: instead of the character going 'of course, now I understand, if this then that and of course he did x because' I try to build an arc and have a concrete observation that triggers the insight.

Any hints and tips gratefully accepted.

Edittorrent said...

Good thoughts! Hmm. About realization... sometimes I think you sort of have to fake action. Like the scene will FEEL active if he gets the big revelation while he's cleaning out the gutters and almost falling off the roof: Revelation-- I need to let go of all the garbage, but hold on to what really matters. :)

That is, the action there (roof, etc.) isn't actually what causes the revelation, of course, but the scene feels more active?

I tend to meticulously build up such revelations-- she realizes this, and it makes her do that, and that makes her understand that, and she talks it over with this person, and... it takes several scenes, and it feels right to me. But I'm always being told that such scene sequences are too methodically paced and dull. Any thoughts? It does feel right to me in the way that instant understanding doesn't, but I can sort of see that this slows down the pacing.

Harry Markov said...

I never saw it that way. It seems like the most natural correlation between to elements, but not entirely obvious. I think this is because the focus of the writer falls on the grammar [how to fix it] rather than examine the reason and prevent it from happening.

I walk away with my eyes opened. :)