Remember the comedy film, THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN? Billy Crystal played a man with writer’s block. Over and over, he struggled with the opening line of his manuscript: The night was … He couldn’t think of the perfect adjective to complete his sentence, and he remained compulsively stuck there.
Funny? You bet!
Good writing? Absolutely not.
We’ve all been taught somewhere along the way to avoid as many passive sentences as possible in our copy. Passive means using the weak “to be” verb and its variations. Yet we all reach for it anyway because it’s easy.
(Whoops! I just used it.)
I admit to using “was” too often when I write, just as I eat too much chocolate and indulge in Lay’s potato chips (real, not the wussy baked) from time to time.
But just like eating junk food, the overindulgence of passive sentences leads to flab. Even worse, the weak “was” construction cries out for the usage of adjectives and adverbs. They weaken sentences, too. Just ask Mark Twain, who claimed that whenever he found an adjective, he killed it.
The night was soft. The air was fragrant. The dog was big and red. It was sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog was after something that shouldn’t be buried there. He decided he would walk gently and quietly over to it. He didn’t want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.
This paragraph is like an overripe apple which looks okay until you bite it and discover the rot beneath that pretty, red-blushed skin.
Let’s smash the “to be” verbs from Jack’s paragraph.
The night … soft. The air … fragrant. The dog … big and red. It … sniffing at the base of the pretty flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk gently and quietly over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.
Now the paragraph looks dumb despite its promising situation. (Ever since Alfred Hitchcock released the film REAR WINDOW, the prospect of something buried in a flowerbed makes us blissfully uneasy.)
What we need is some oomph. This poor paragraph is too plain. Why not amp up the qualifiers?
The night air felt balmy, sultry. The air smelled lush and moist with the heady fragrance of jasmine vine mingled with gardenias. A vast, hairy dog–burnished like mahogany wood veneer–kept sniffing at the base of exotic, tropical flowers. Jack surmised the dog was investigating something buried there. He paused, debating whether to investigate, too. Then he sauntered toward the animal, not wanting to frighten it away.
Imagine a student handing me this paragraph. Imagine me slapping my forehead. Better yet, let’s imagine me giving this muck-maker a head slap instead.
Overdoing the qualifiers doesn’t create sparkling prose.
“But of course it does!” Bewildered Bart cries. “I’ve made it vivid. I’ve given it life! And I only used ‘was’ once.”
Ever hear of the phrase “purple prose?” It means overdone, and if you want examples of it, read a few passages penned by the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton, a hot-selling writer of the 19th century.
Nope. Let’s back away from Bewildered Bart’s draft and try again. This time, we’ll remove the adverbs and adjectives, no matter how vivid and lively Bewildered Bart has made them.
The night … The air … The dog … It … sniffing at the base of … flowers. Jack thought maybe the dog … after something that … buried there. He decided he … walk … over to it. He … not want to frighten the dog or call attention to the spot.
This is looking as hopeless as patching a punky wood windowsill with a bottle of carpenter’s glue. Not much remains.
Solution? We gotta rewrite the sentences.
Soft air brushed Jack’s cheek as he peered through the shadows. He saw a dog–maybe an Irish setter–sniffing along the flowerbed at the Wilkins house. The animal’s intensity spiked Jack’s curiosity. He turned in that direction, his movement unhurried to avoid frightening the dog or calling attention to himself.
See the difference? Cutting the qualifiers forces us to select active verbs. Nouns become more specific. Specificity creates plausibility. This paragraph doesn’t serve up prize-winning prose, but at least we can focus better on the actual story event. If a reader decides her curiosity equals Jack’s, she’ll turn the page. If she tosses the story aside, it’s because of the premise and not flabby writing.
“But you left out the gardenias!” Bewildered Bart might say. “You cut the jasmine vine, and I wanted that imagery there. Imagine the moonlight shining on those white blooms, like tiny stars in the night.”
If we write about body parts buried in the flowerbed, we don’t need romantic imagery. Match your sentence tone to the subject matter. Edgar Allen Poe sure did, and he’s still in print. Just sayin’.
To reiterate, vary sentences in type and length, use strong voice, rely on specific nouns and precise verbs, avoid qualifiers, and match your topic’s tone. Imagery then becomes vivid, not because we’ve plied an excess of details the way a toddler paints herself with mommy’s lipstick, but because our sentences are clear and easy to read.
George Orwell said that good writing should be “like a pane of glass.” The sentences should fade from a reader’s consciousness, so that only the story is seen.
That, folks, is sparkle.