The Hidden Vampires in Your Prose: Start Using Active Form

The Hidden Vampires in Your Prose: Start Using Active Form

Nov 7, 2016 | Latest, Writing Help

You may not realize it, but we often introduce little vampires into our text that suck the vitality from what could be stronger prose.

At least, that’s what my mentor called them back when I was studying in the Writer’s Institute for Children’s Literature.

They sap the life, weaken the nouns and cause our verbs to sag to their knees.

Knock them out one by one, and you will surprise yourself how much more direct, forceful and immediate your writing becomes.

So what are these vamps?

Run with Active Form

It’s changing your approach from a passive form of writing to an active form. Now, I’m no grammar enthusiast, but I know what makes good prose. ;) So I’ll leave the definitions of intransitives and the like to the pros, and try to show you what I mean.

These little soul-suckers sneak in with simple formulations like

  • ‘there were objects on the table colored red and glowed pink in the sunlight.’
  • ‘the object was trying to climb out of the box’’
  • ‘the girl was standing on the hill’.

Change each one of these from a passive exposition to an active, and you’ll immediately see how much better your writing becomes:

  • the red objects on the table glowed pink in the sunlight.
  • the object struggled to climb out of the box
  • the girl stood on the hill.

In each one of these examples, the action focus changed from ‘was’ and ‘were’ to the verbs directly related to the objects: ‘were’ became ‘glowed’, ‘was’ became ‘struggle or climb’, ‘was standing’ became ‘stood’.

Here’s an example of a paragraph that works, but could be make much stronger:

The cab driver’s horn whipped past into another side street as Ben skidded between a pair of tall buildings. One was a three story department store that was already bustling with life. The other a cafe with pale steam that was rising from the upper windows, giving Ben renewed reason to curse. He had slept well past dawn.

Now see how the paragraph reads with the vampires knocked out and the prose reworked to provide more detail and immediacy:

The cab driver’s horn whipped past into another alley as Ben skidded through a puddle into a sidestreet. On his left rose a four storey department store already bustling with customers hugging bags and shrugged through the glass doors. On his right he could smell the cafe steaming with cinnamon croissants and caramel lattes, smoke from the early-morning baking puffing from an aluminum chimney. Stomach growling, Ben cursed again. He had overslept well past his dawn appointment.

Over to you now. Wherever you can, take a silver bullet to every single one of your passive tenses, and move everything to focus on solid, active verbs.

Granted, it won’t work everywhere, but you will quickly see the difference it makes, because it forces to you start thinking more actively about the subject of your sentence, and what they are doing.

How has it worked for you? :)


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Dominic Vera

Founder of LegendFiction, and a total Wandery. Geeks over epics, mystics, science, the angelic, & Netflix. A young, Catholic dad and novelist passionate about worldbuilding and faith-inspired fiction. A graduate from the Writer’s Institute for Children’s Literature, self-published a children’s novel, and works as a full time marketer and graphic designer. Married, with a small girl and a smaller corgi. Website | See more of Dominic's posts

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