How to write attention grabbing sentences: active vs passive construction #amwriting

With the huge number of novels available these days, it’s important to grab your readers’ attention immediately or they may never read past the sample pages Amazon offers.

There’s lots of advice out there on writing those all-important opening lines – start with action, suggest something unusual, be controversial etc. – but I want to focus today on the physical structure of your sentences.

The inspiration for this post came about after I finished a really great book (see my review of THE HARVEST OF LIES here) and delved into my Kindle to find my next read. Yes, I have a (huge) TBR list, but I tend not to read in order of arrival, but instead sort through them until I find what suits my mood of the time, and after reading a really well written book, I wanted something comparable.

Sadly, the next book I opened, one that I’d thought from the blurb would be right up my alley, didn’t live up to my expectations. I read the first sentence and stopped.

PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION is a real turn off for me, and I know I’m not alone.

What do I mean by passive construction? Use of words such as ‘was’, ‘had’, ‘had been’ ‘begun to’, and the like – unnecessary words that slow the reading experience. Obviously past tense requires some of these, but when writing in present tense, why use them?

For example, here is that sentence that bounced me right out of a book I was looking forward to reading:

“The scream made Taka drop the snowball she had just been aiming at her friend’s head…”

Action? Yes. But the passive construction makes it wordy and distancing. Why not:

“The scream made Taka drop the snowball she’d aimed at her friend’s head…”

See what I mean? Crisper, more direct, less words. So simple.

This might seem picky, but I’ve found as I write more, and as the huge choice of books available these days means I no longer finish everything I begin, I rarely have the patience to read books that start with an unpromising opening sentence like this.

I did push myself to read the first 2 pages before giving up, but in those 2 pages I encountered a couple more instances, and that was enough for me to stop and go looking for another book.

These were both on page 2:

“Once she had cleared her vision…” – why not, simply  “Once she cleared her vision…” ?

“In one move Mishi had dismounted from Taka’s shoulders and they had begun running in Rika’s direction.”

Why not: “In one move Mishi dismounted from Taka’s shoulders and they both ran towards Rika.”

The next book I picked out had a few instances of ‘were’ (“They were all huddled together…” – the ‘were’ is unnecessary) and ‘was’ (“the lady with the piercing eyes who was staring him straight in the eye…” would be more immediate as “the lady with the piercing eyes who stared him straight in the eye…”) but not enough to push me back from the narrative, so this one is my current read.

Active construction is about immediacy that grabs the reader and drags them into the story where passive construction slows things down and makes the reader feel more of an outside observer.

I am by no means an expert on the use of language, or, I hope, a writing snob. But as authors we must always be open to improving our craft, and using active construction is a point I learned a while ago, and something that now stands out as a sort thumb to me when I see writers using passive sentences when it would be easy and far more effective to use active construction.

How about you? What grates on you enough to reject a book in the first couple of pages?

 

 

 

 

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29 comments

  1. I admit you had me confused with the use of “passive” here. I thought you were referring to the use of the passive voice but you are actually referring to the past perfect tense. I do agree with the examples you give, it makes the sequences clunky and awkward.

    What puts me off in the first few sentences of a book? The obvious attempt to shock or surprise. I can’t help it. Sometimes it works because the writing is good and the story calls for it but many others, it is out of place, unnecessary and in itself, awkward.

    1. Oh yes, that’s one on my list too.

  2. I will admit to using the occasional past perfect sentence here and there, but only for clarification. For instance, if I start with where the characters actually are (“They sat at the table sipping lukewarm coffee.”)I might add another line nearby describing how they got there. (“They’d arrived by tour bus an hour earlier, only to find the restaurant nearly empty.”) Excuse the lame examples. They do NOT appear in any of my books. 😀

    I learn more about writing every day, and am making a conscious effort not to use passive voice, in addition to keeping past perfect lines to a minimum, too. I do think we want the reader to be “in the moment” when possible.” Thanks for reminding us of this. It’s often a difficult thing to remember, since most of us speak with a lot of “was” and “were” phrasing.

    1. Oh I use past perfect in limited moments just as you do – it’s a necessity sometimes, but as you say, we all use ‘was’ and ‘were’ in our own dialogue, but we have to be stricter with ourselves when we write if we want to produce the best possible reading experience. Just as we say ‘um’ and ‘errr’ a lot when we talk, if we did that in our characters’ dialogue as much as we do in real life, we’d pretty soon lose our readers!
      Thanks for popping in Marcia, I have a post coming up soon that has a video taken just for you, so stay tuned…

  3. Ooooh, I can’t wait! Staying tuned as hard as I can! 😀

    I’ve read we aren’t supposed to use “Well” and other filler words in our dialogue, but for me, with the characters I write, I think it’s necessary (now and then, with discretion) in order to make their words sound authentic. So, the occasional “errr” or “um” shows up, when appropriate. But holy moly, if we had to write down every sentence starting with “Like,” or “I mean,” or the newest thing, “So,” it would get out of hand in a hurry, wouldn’t it? I watched an interview not long ago where the guest started every single answer with the word “So.”

    “Where were you born?”
    “So, I was born in Jacksonville.”
    “What’s your favorite animal?”
    “So, I really like dogs, but cats are my favorites.”

    What’s up with that? And can you imagine how fast you’d slam the book shut if a character did that over and over? Ack! 😯

    1. Lol, that sounds like a truly tedious interview!
      In our characters’ dialogue it’s all about using such verbal ticks just enough to identify an individual, without overdoing it to the point of annoyance isn’t it?

      1. I agree, completely. Otherwise, they all sound alike. 😀 Great post, Deb!

  4. robbiecheadle · · Reply

    I am not sure I am that sensitive to the word usage. Maybe I haven’t been writing long enough to notice it specifically. I don’t like books that drag or that I struggle to read because they are to complex in there structure.

    1. I think our tastes change over time, I know mine have, and learning about good writing practices have lowered my tolerance for less than crisp-to-read stories.
      Or it might just be I’m turning into the grumpy old woman I always swore I wouldn’t become!

  5. Thanks Deborah.. great examples. I hate books that start with He died on Wednesday and then spend the next 30 chapters on the back story. The same with movies! I also think some writers try to cram all the characters into the first chapter rather than introduce them in a more mindful way, maybe it is my age but I get confused easily!

    1. Ah yes, another technique that doesn’t make a book easy to get into. Thanks for adding that one 😀

  6. I know what you mean and I think I would have stopped this one also. Wordiness throws me right out. I’ve been accused of being too tight in my prose but the opposite is even worse!

    1. Of course we can never please all readers – I’ve had some comments about not enough description in my novels, and some about too much!

  7. Fab post Deb! I remember when I started writing books about the ‘hads’ thing, reading many articles on passive voice I didn’t want to be one of those writers, lol. But yes, like you I find with every book I put out I can feel my writing elevating. I guess it’s like anything else – practice makes almost perfect lol. I’m not sure if that book you were referring to was the author’s first book or not but if it wasn’t it demonstrates that someone isn’t learning as they grow. We must never stop learning. 🙂 xx

    1. I just checked it out and yes, it is the author’s first book though she has out a second now and a collection of short stories. I hope she is learning and perhaps will one day come back and edit this book with that greater knowledge – I’d still like to read it, but not as it stands now. One of the good things about the new publishing world – we can go back and correct our mistakes/upgrade our product rather than having to look back in future years and wish we’d known then what we know now.

      1. Absolutely Deb! I know I’d even like to redo a few one day. You know, that proverbial one day! LOL 🙂 x

      2. Lol, let me know when you come across that day… 😉

      3. Lollllllllllllllllllllll 🙂 xx

  8. I recently put aside a book that didn’t use the continuous aspect when it should have–instead of “She was wearing a red dress” it would have “She wore a red dress” (made-up example, btw). It made the whole book feel like it had been written by someone whose first language wasn’t English. I have no idea if the editor didn’t catch those or if the author had insisted on them.

    I’d absolutely put down a book that didn’t use the past perfect when it should have. Using the past perfect incorrectly is obviously bad, but not using it where it’s appropriate is too.

    1. While it’s still obviously important to use tenses correctly, current writing (and reading) trends are largely focussed on immediacy to improve pace, so most editors advise losing words such as ‘was’ and ‘had’ whenever an alternative sentence construction is feasible.
      I don’t personally like books written in present tense, but they are popular amongst younger readers – the ultimate in immediacy?

  9. Great post and discussion. Thanks. Grammarly does accuse me of using passive voice, but I find it difficult to not do so when writing non-fiction articles. Changing the sentences around would make for a difficult read.

    1. I think its more acceptable for non-fiction, Norah. I certainly don’t think about it when I write factual articles for magazines or websites, I just ensure I’m writing in the style of the publication.

      1. Grammarly and I have a lot of disagreements. Grammarly is not keen on my style, though I usually score pretty well anyway. 🙂

      2. Lol, I have plenty of arguments with my SatNav while I’m driving places, but I always get there!

      3. I know what you mean about the SatNav too! 🙂

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