I once had a creative writing professor who taught us to never use the conjunctions as or when unless the simultaneity of the actions was critical. She argued it “cluttered up the sentences” and distracted readers from the main verb—the main action—of the sentence. Now, I don’t believe this to be true as a hard-and-fast rule (just as I don’t believe passive voice is a hard and fast no-no), but it does bring up the role of passive action in our writing as well as the problem of clunky sentences.
We all know what passive voice is, but . . .
WHAT IS PASSIVE ACTION?
Okay, you caught me. Passive action isn’t something they teach you in school or that you can readily find on the internet. It’s a concept that mainly comes from my amber-tinged brain.
Passive action: (n) actions your characters take that are told in summary form in order to move through necessary sequences to reach an emphasized or critical single action.
Examples: “As I was taking out the trash, a raccoon jumped on my head and tore off my bandana.” “I turned around when I heard my name called by a strange voice.” “He snuck up the drive, careful to avoid the littered toys on the lawn, his eyes trained on the glowing living room window.”
All of those examples contain one critical action supported by passive actions. The raccoon stole the bandana. A stranger called my name. He approached the living room window. The other actions are passive; generic motions needed to get to that one action that is then played out in detail (presumably in the rest of the paragraph). I think people would more commonly refer to this idea as summary, but where summaries differentiate from passive action is that summaries cover events over a past period of time while passive action details events happening in real time for the narrative but that are skimmed over.
WHEN DO YOU USE PASSIVE ACTION?
We use passive action in our writing all the time. Personally, I’m a big believer in having your sentences accomplish one task at a time. Clean, to-the-point sentences that move the reader through your story without bogging them down in a volley of description-action-thought-action sequences all within one syntactical structure. But, like all rules and philosophies on writing, there are many exceptions to this preference, and passive action is one of them.
If two things need to happen quickly in your scene and two or more sentences will kill your pacing’s ramp up, passive action can definitely help. Between each period on the page, the reader takes a mental pause; a thoughtful breath. Mary Robinette Kowal has often said on Writing Excuses that when training audio book narrators, she gives them the general guideline of “take a beat for every comma, two for a period, and three beats between each paragraph.”
That’s where as and when come into play. Inserting these simple conjunctions into your sentences allows you to race along your scene without your reader hitting large punctuation speed bumps. It’s a great tool to use to tighten up your pacing and get your reader focused on the significant without omitting the necessary. Instead of pin-balling through your scene with multiple short sentences, passive action creates a smooth transition from one non-critical event to the next.
Passive action isn’t limited to just blocking and movement. You can move dialogue to passive action to save time on detailing an inconsequential—but necessary—conversation. You see this all the time in adventure stories when the characters get together and plan their escapades. “I have an idea,” said the hero, and he told them what he had learned in the market. They spent the next hour discussing possible tactics until the bartender told them the hall was closing for the night. You need to know they discuss their plans, but you don’t want to spoil the next scene for the reader. You also don’t need to detail the bartender kicking them out, because you need to move on to your next scene. It’s a nice way to slide through necessary conversations to get to critical moments.
However, like passive voice, passive action should be used sparingly and with great consideration in order to avoid clunky sentences.
HOW CLUNKY SENTENCES KILL YOUR PROSE
We all know about clunky sentences. Those train-wreck ramblers that go on for close to eighty words, running from thought to thought as they try to encapsulate an idea with all its various extremities and vitalities like a spider web desperately trying to hold on to a butterfly as the prey uses its scales to wriggle free, much like how the reader’s attention wriggles free because the writer is trying to accomplish too much in one sentence.
Kind of like that.
A clunky sentence can kill your prose simply by confusing your reader out of the story. If your reader has to reread and analyze your words for any reason other than your great philosophical insight, you’re doing it wrong. That’s not a rule in writing a great writer can break; it’s a mistake poor writers can’t see. Passive action can help accelerate your pacing, but so can short sentences, if appropriate. There’s a plethora of tools you can use manipulate your pacing and detangle your prose; passive action is merely one of them.
What do you think of passive action? Do you use it? Avoid it? How do you handle juggling a lot of action in a short amount of space? Let me know in the comments!