Does It Matter Whodunnit?

As a break from my latest novel, I’ve been doing a bit of a re-edit of my parallel lives thriller Thin Ice – with help from an online service called Pro Writing Aid.

As well as being free (always a bonus), it’s proving very useful and it’s certainly making me analyse my text in considerable detail.

But some questions it raises are about potential grammar issues I just wouldn’t have understood a few years ago. Like, passive sentences.

I’m one of those people who wasn’t taught grammar at school. I learnt most of my grammar by a process of absorption and while my English has always been pretty good I never used to have a clue how it really worked.

Once, if you’d asked me what a passive sentence was, I’d have looked at you blankly. So, for anyone else – like me – who never had any formal grammar training, I thought I’d try and offer a bit of help.

Practically every creative writing teacher or guide will tell you that ‘action’ is what moves a story along, whether that’s physical movement, thoughts or dialogue. For example:

Michael stepped over one of the corpses. He wondered how many more they would find. He turned to his partner: ‘Hey, Julie, do you think they were all werewolves?’

Sometimes, we can slip in a bit of observation – but preferably not to much – to describe the scene:

Fresh blood glistened in the morning light. Globs of it had splashed all over the room, decorating the floor and the walls. One spray of still-uncongealed arterial fluid had even spattered in a thick arc across the ceiling.

Now – technically – all of the sentences above are active. We have verbs describing actions by the agent – Michael in the first example and blood in the second. And with an active sentence we start the sentence with the agent and their action.

Sometimes, though, the agent (whether person or thing) is either less important or totally irrelevant. What matters in the end result:

Ernie the vampire was dead. He had been shot with a rocket propelled wooden stake, fired a police marksman .

In this case, we’ve turned things round. These are passive sentences. In the first example, the only thing that matters is Ernie’s death. (He was a mad lunatic who terrorised the town so getting rid of him is what counts.) In the second sentence, you get a bit more information. Again though, it’s the result that’s important, not who did it.

If we turned these sentences around we’d have to put the marksman first:

A police marksman killed Ernie the vampire by shooting him with a rocket propelled wooden stake.

That sentence is active – and a bit tighter – but who cares about the policeman. The important bit of information is that Ernie’s not going to be biting any more necks, which is why we put his death first and then how it was caused.

It’s like saying: Investigators from the justice department have today arrested the President. Who cares who did it! What’s important is the fact that the President’s been a bad boy.

There’s more to active vs passive but hopefully you get the drift. Obviously you wouldn’t want to cram too many passive sentences into a book but there are times when it’s the right thing to use. So if your editor – whether online or flesh – tells you off for using passive sentences, make sure you check the context before you despair.

Hope this helps!

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2 responses to “Does It Matter Whodunnit?”

  1. Kate Sparkes says :

    This issue seems a lot like the “don’t use adverbs” rule. It’s not so much that you can never use them, but that you should use them only when appropriate, so their impact isn’t lost among a sea of unnecessary adverbs (or passive phrases). I know I use far too many passive phrases (particularly “was” descriptions). They’re so sneaky.

  2. belindawilliamsbooks says :

    Good to see you’re getting some value out of Pro Writing Aid, I’ve certainly found it’s a helpful tool. Like you, the passive sentence concept finally clicked when editing using this!

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