Archive for March, 2018

The effect of passive voice on your fiction-writing style. Article About Writing Better


Monday, March 19th, 2018
William H. Coles

If your fiction prose-stories don’t attract readers, one culprit may be nonjudicious use of the passive voice related to style and craft proficiency. To moderate style, a writer needs to know passive construction and understand both the effective and often-detrimental uses of passive.  Here’s a concise, valuable overview.

EXAMPLES: Compare the effects of these two passages:
Passive
The inscriptions on the gravestones were obscured by darkness but the marble was still cracked by Jason’s hammer-strike as a photograph was taken by a hidden camera.

Active
Darkness obscured the gravestone inscriptions but Jason cracked the marble with a hammer strike as a hidden camera took a photograph.

CONCEPT.
A common purpose of passive use is to change the focus of attention in the sentence from the subject to the object.

Active:  The whale swallowed Pinocchio.  An ACTIVE sentence emphasizes who did something (the doer).
Passive:   Pinocchio was swallowed by the whale.  In the PASSIVE, the object becomes more important than the "doer" and the “doer” of the action becomes  the subject.

Also in the passive,  the "doer" (1) may not be revealed or (2) may be revealed with the use of “by” followed by the “doer”.

Active: The intruder murdered the woman.  (The intruder is the subject “doer”; woman is the object.)

Passive: The woman was murdered.   (Object becomes the subject, the “doer” is not revealed.)

Passived: The woman was murdered by the intruder. ("Doer" is revealed at  sentence end using "by" followed by the "doer" noun.)

USE OF PASSIVE
In essence, passive is often used when the FOCUS is on:

1) what happened–focus is on the object:

Passive. I was attacked by a stranger.  Compare active:  A stranger attacked me.

2) who carried out the action.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe was painted by Manet.

3) how the action was carried out:

The solo was played beautifully.

OR when the “DOER”:

4) is unknown.

The cathedral was built in 1245.

5) does not want to be identified

Murders were committed.

Other uses of the passive.
Promotion of indirect objects, idiomatic combinations, prepositional passives, content clauses, impersonal passive, adjectival uses, double passives…

TAKE AWAY.
Undoubtedly, most successful prose-fiction storytellers don’t need to spend too much time worrying about the details of passive tense. They default to creating by instinct. But for some literary fiction styles, unnecessary overuse of the passive may be detrimental; the passive may be weaker, wordier, and more indirect than the active which is direct and vigorous. And a passive has potential for erasing who performs the action therefore avoiding the agent’s responsibility for the action.  [Example: Crucial statistics were deleted from our files.]

Although avoidance of the passive has been advised by many teachers of writing, the passive is often the better choice for clear expression: when the actor is unimportant, unknown, or needs to be hidden; when the focus of the sentence is on what is being acted upon; to maintain point of view; or simply when it sounds better. (see Bryan A. Garner and Joseph M. Williams below).

In summary, knowledge and controlled use of the passive in literary fiction stories can improve a writer’s style with clarity and focus on verb, subject, object emphasis that improves reader engagement and understanding.

Thanks for reading.
William H. Coles

RESOURCES
-Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice
Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 676–677. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
-Williams, Joseph M. (2015). Bizup, Joseph, ed. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (5th ed.). Pearson. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-321-95330-8.

ANNOUNCING PODCAST OF SHORT STORIES READ BY THE AUTHOR’
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Books by William H. Coles

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TRYThe Surgeon’s Wife by William H. Coles
[and other novels and short stories: McDowell, Guardian of Deceit, The Spirit of Want, Sister Carrie, Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016]



Why Select Stories Succeed Best as Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion


Monday, March 5th, 2018
William H. Coles

Great literary fiction storytelling as an art form is not for all readers, and its success is not measured solely on volume of commercial book sales but rather the number of readers moved or enlightened by characters and story, usually about what it means to be human. Many of the literary stories that have lasted into new generations of readers have important, common characteristics; here are the principles.

1. Characterization.
The fictional humans that populate successful literary fiction seem real to the reader, either in the context of the reader’s world, or the story world created by the author. It is the creation of these “real “characters to be moved by as well as to move story events that assembles character-based story and plot in most successful literary fiction.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “. . . they [characters] live and are complex by means of their effect upon many different people who serve to mirror them in the round. . ." When considering “. . . the permanent quality of literature . . . think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains . . . a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values.

2. Author’s role.
Woolf taught us: “Always in imaginative literature, . . . characters speak for themselves and the author has no part . . .”  In effect, there is no “I” in most great literary fiction. Woolf, in  A Common Reader, gives Emily Brontë as an example; “. . . she was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel [Wuthering Heights]— a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely ‘I love’ or ‘I hate’, but ‘we, the whole human race’ and ‘you, the eternal powers . . .’ ”

3. Narrative voices.
Contemporary stories depend on particular action to keep a story moving. In developing character, there is often a shift from “. . . the actual body with all its associations and movements . . .” to the general, [abstract], more poetic prose. Woolf suggests, for literary fiction, the need for a voice that combines action and poetics without interrupting the movement of the story whole, a voice “similar to what the choruses of Greek drama supplied–the old men or women who take no active part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his conception. Always in imaginative literature, where characters speak for themselves and the author has no part, the need of that voice [similar to a chorus] is making itself felt.

To some extent, memoir and creative nonfiction have invaded the realm of imaginative literary fiction melding memoir and biography with fiction as literature. The dissapearance of classic-fiction stories is at least partially due to academics failing to educate writing students to the intricacies of the great, successful literary fiction of the past.

Thanks for reading. William H. Coles.

References: Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader ISBN 978-0-15-602778-6; Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader ISBN 0-15-602816-6

Nemesis
Illustration by David Riley for the short story “Nemesis”, by William H. Coles

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Thirty-four original stories read by the author.




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