Friday, January 6, 2017

Prose Blip – Active Voice Part One

“Show, don’t tell.”
“Don’t use passive voice.”
“Use active verbs.”

As writers, we’ve all heard these sorts of idioms and catchphrases all the time. They’re often ill-explained, and when they are explained, they’re rarely given as true applications. People act as if these sorts of things – passivity and activity – are purely stylistic and so you can only pick them up through long practices and technical exercises.
However, I’ve found that the application of active voice is very simple, using two basic techniques. For sake of shortness of post, I’ll talk about one today and one next Friday.

Today: the state of mind

What is State of Mind?

Before anything else, I want to give credit where credit is deserved. I didn’t come up with this phrase “state of mind”. I first heard this phrase from a Mr. Daniel Schwabauer, and I’m not sure if he made it up or got it from somewhere else.
Either way, that’s where my credit line starts and end, you can pursue it as you will or not.

Now. “State of Mind” [SoM as it will be referred to forthwith… wow I sound like a terms and agreement statement] is state simply and complexly in this way: State of mind is the current emotions and thoughts of a character at any given moment.
I’m done here, go forth and write in active voice.

Okay, here’s the deal: SoM is a continuous battle with your brain. It requires your mind to be constantly working to make sure that your characters are also constantly thinking and feeling. It’s hard work. SoM requires you to make a commitment: a commitment to arduous writing instead of lazy writing.

Writing a State of Mind

All right, so SoM is the current emotions and thoughts of the POV character. Great. Good to know. Fantastic. I can feel the better writer flowing through my veins already. Fabulous.

Now what?

All right. Let’s break this up and see how we apply each part to an actually piece of writing:

Firstly, SoM is current. I should be able to open your book, read two random paragraphs (or eight to ten sentences if your paragraphs are super short) and know exactly what the POV character is feeling and thinking. You can’t get away with long spaces between emotion and thought updates.
SoM requires a lot of work because every few sentences you need to hit refresh on the emotions. Even if the character is still feeling the same thing as they were four sentences. Think of SoM as a frame rate in a film or video game. Even if nothing is changing and the screen is still and looks almost like a picture rather than a video, there’s still a continuous changing of frames. There’s a dozen of the same image squashed into one fraction of a second. 

SoM is just like that. It’s a constant update, so we always know the current emotion. Therefore, a direct application of SoM is this: you need it every few sentences (6-10 is probably a good gauge… also variety is nice, so don’t just settle with a checklist of “okay, five sentences, time for SoM and then five more sentences and then SoM and then five sentences and then SoM and….).

Secondly, SoM deals with emotion. It’s more than just TELLING us what emotions the character is feeling. Instead, it’s showing the direct actions that result from those emotions. Sure, a good reminder that sweaty palms are a form of nervousness is fine, but I also need to see the sweaty palms, see the character licking their lips and swallowing the lump in their throat and wiping their hands on their trousers. These sorts of actions bring the emotion that the character is feeling to life.

So how do you directly apply SoM emotions to writing? Give us actions that correspond to the emotion. Everyone once in a while, slip in a character beat: a small action or reaction that describes an emotion. Like I just used above, a nervous character will lick their lips, wipe their hands on their trousers, shift from one foot to the other, keep an eye on the exit, move about a lot, fidget nervously, play with things with their hands. Their Adam’s apple will bob, their eyes will shift, their knees will shake, they’ll laugh pitifully, their voice might squeak, and so forth.
You don’t need to use all of the actions, just a few. However, give us variety. If you’re using this every few sentences, you need a lot of variety and a lot of different actions. This is where the work comes in. Examining the emotion you’re using and coming up with a good dozen emotional actions can be hard. Especially when you don’t want to just outright say: “he was nervous”. That’s no good at all, and doesn’t give your reader anything to work with.

That’s where the last part of SoM comes into play: SoM gives us thoughts. You can alternate between thoughts and emotions to create an SoM without have to be redundant over and over and over. Now… what are these thoughts? They’re individualistic comments on the nouns surrounding the character. What’s that supposed to mean? Basically, it’s when your character thinks something into the narrative. I’m not a huge fan of direct-quote thoughts in italics. Few authors can pull it off well and consistently enough (Robert Jordan is a good example of one who can). Rather, it’s when your narration comes off as a unique thought. It’s a sentence of narration that fits your character. For instance, the nervous character above might insert sentences like “Calm. Everything is fine.” And then later “They can’t tell. Surely they can’t tell. Can they?” And even later “No one’s guarding the exit. A quick escape. Breathe.”

These aren’t direct thoughts, unless you stuff them into italics, and so work as bits of narration. They can work as dialogue tags, or as ways to break up descriptions of people, places, and things. These thoughts can also be direct comments on description, rather than on emotion. For instance, suppose a vase full of flowers is described, If the character dislikes what the vase looks like, something like “Quite ugly.” As a thought could follow the description and let us know what the character is thinking.
These sorts of thoughts may sound passive, but they aren’t. They’re not direct descriptions or actions, instead they’re side comments given by the main character’s personality into the narrative.

You can intersperse these emotions and actions into your narrative with little effort: one or the other every six to ten sentences isn’t hard. Well… it is. Getting into the habit is hard, and maintaining continuity is hard.
But it’s worth it. It’s a simple way to create active voice where otherwise your reader sees no action, no emotion, and no thought. It’s active, and it’s easy to get the hang of.


  1. Oooooooo *bookmarks post for use in the very near future* Dude, have I mentioned how HELPFUL these posts are?? Me thinks you should write a book for writers... ;) I know I would buy it!!

    1. Aw well thanks. :) I'm glad these are helpful! ^_^