This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #3: Weak Construction. Often fiction sags and wilts due to lackluster word choice, uninteresting or incorrect sentence structure, and use of passive voice and vagueness. Editor Rachel Starr Thomson kicks off this month’s flaw with an introduction to the topic.
Annie Dillard wrote that one who wants to be a writer should like sentences. In reality, I think, most of us write because we have stories to tell, but the love of words (and sentences, and paragraphs) must come into it, or else we would all be making movies instead instead of writing books.
Along the way we learn that not every sentence is created equal: that our words and how we string them together will give life to the stories we tell or drain them dry.
Thankfully, while natural talent and a good ear certainly help, good sentence writing is not some mystical skill that only the most devoted Jedi will ever attain. This month’s topic is weak sentence construction—or more specifically, how to avoid it.
To Be Inging, There Was Passive Vagueness
Okay, that nonsense subhead was fun to write. I admit it. Let’s watch its parts in action:
The ramshackle mansion was being built on a hilltop. In the trees birds were singing and the leaves were rustling under a sky that was sunny and clouds that were puffy and white. Nails were hammered sharply into boards while bricks were laid. It was a beautiful, pristine day. The work was coming along. Filling the air, the sounds of construction were encouraging. Laying aside his tool, the workers were waiting for him.
Garth stood on the hilltop, arms folded, gazing on the workers and the ramshackle mansion rising at their hands. The striking, churning, buzzing, scraping sounds of construction drowned out the songs of birds in the trees. Dark-skinned slaves hammered nails into boards and laid bricks one by one as the sun shone down on them from a pristine blue sky.
He laid aside his hammer, encouraged by their progress. The workers awaited him.
The main problems of the “Before” paragraph can be broken down as follows:
- Overuse of “be” verbs (be, being, been, is, am, are, was, and were)
- Overuse of the past progressive (aka past continuous) tense—the “ing” verbs
- Overuse of the passive voice
- Vague descriptors
I use the word overuse when addressing these problems because “be” verbs, past progressive, and passive voice all have their place in our writing. Artists will use all shades, not only primary colors. But overuse—or just plain bad use—of any of these is death on vivid storytelling.
Be verbs. The eight forms of the verb “be”—otherwise known as state-of-being verbs—are useful, necessary little words without which English would hardly function. It’s a great mistake to try to excise them from our writing vocabularies completely. (And contrary to popular editorial legend, the use of a “be” verb does not automatically constitute passive voice.)
In storytelling, however, the state-of-being verbs can be a problem because they do just that: they state being. They do not show action. They do not move, or act, or really describe. They are just there. And nine times out of ten, they can be replaced by a stronger verb.
So rather than, “She was at home,” you might try “She waited at home,” or “She stayed at home,” or “She twiddled her thumbs at home, wishing with all her might that she were somewhere else.” A “sky that was sunny” becomes “a sunny sky,” and “clouds that were puffy” become “puffy clouds.” “There was a man on the hill” becomes “A man stood on the hill.” Word count drops, rhythm improves, and images grow vivid.
The “be” verbs also act as helpers for past progressive verbs. Rather than simply stating that an action happened, a past progressive (or past continuous) verb traces its action—it shows that is “is happening.” So we get “was being,” “were singing,” “were rustling,” “was coming,” “were encouraging, “were waiting.”
At times you may want to stress the continuation of an action. In that case past progressive is fine. But normally, the simple past form of the verb will be more effective: sang, rustled, came, encouraged, waited. “Was being” is completely replaced by wording that SHOWS the mansion being built.
The forms of “be” show up again in the use of passive voice. This is actually the biggest problem with the “Before” paragraph, far outweighing the others. Reading it, you might wonder, “Who the heck are these people? There’s no one in this scene!”
The mansion might be raised by phantoms, for all we can see:
The ramshackle mansion was being built . . . by whom? Nails were hammered sharply into boards . . . by whom? Bricks were laid . . . by whom? Who was encouraged by the sounds of construction? Who lays aside his hammer? There isn’t a single actor in the whole paragraph; instead, every noun is acted upon. That is the difference between passive and active voice.
Even passive voice has its place in fiction: it’s quite effective, for example, to create surrealism or suggest shock. But active voice acts, and that makes it by far the stronger mode of construction. The “After” paragraph has people, real characters, doing real things.
Which brings us, finally, to the problem of vagueness. Passive voice and state-of-being verbs contribute to making a scene vague; so does past progressive with its tendency to suggest that nothing is ever really finished or going anywhere definite. But here nouns, adjectives, and adverbs all come into play as well:
The more general the wording, the less vivid it will be. The more concrete and specific, the more vivid. Specifics make a movie out of mud.
In the “After” paragraph, therefore, we have Garth, a man with a name; we have dark-skinned slaves, a hammer, sounds that are not just “sounds of construction” but that buzz, scrape, churn, strike, and drown out other sounds.
Strong verbs, active voice, concrete nouns and modifiers: all make for scenes that move, that are vivid, that create stories out of sentences and invite us in.
Has this post given you a better sense of how to construct active, effective sentences? Has it changed your understanding of “passive voice” or helped you understand how these sentence constructions might be used to “shade” a scene rather than as its primary colors? Can you identify weak verbs, vague descriptors, or poor choices of tense in your own writing?