Writing Excuses 9.17: Microcasting

Eric James Stone joins Brandon, Mary, and Howard to answer questions from our listeners. Here are the questions:

  • Should you submit your prologue along with the first chapters?
  • What do you do when you’ve got some professional sales under your belt, but can’t seem to get more?
  • How do you manage scene/sequel format in a multi-POV novel?
  • Is passive voice really that bad? How do you tell if you’re using it too much?
  • What is the threshold for deus ex machina?
  • How do you maximize the emotional impact of a character death?
  • If you’re a discovery writer, how do you go about becoming an outliner?
  • When someone asks what you do for a living, how do you answer them?
  • How do you get out of the beat-by-beat, this-then-that blocking of action?

Here is the Grammar Girl episode we mentioned.



Write your character doing two things at once, both of which are plot-specific.

14 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.17: Microcasting”

  1. Excellent topics this time around.

    Congrats, also, on all the Hugo nominations for our hosts, not only for the podcast but for their writing as well!

  2. I read the liner notes before listening each week. The sixth question threw me off. Could one of you change the last word from “depth” to “death”?

    Mary: where will we see _Penny Lives_? I want that in my kindle right now.

  3. Use (or not) of passive voice is a matter of convention. In certain academic writing, particularly science, passive voice is required. Science writers do this specifically because consistent use of passive voice removes the personality of the researcher(s) from the writing. (The scientist is not important, the ideas are.)

    The point of character-driven fiction is to reveal the character to the reader. A writing tool that inherently obscures information will have a place, but not very often.

  4. Mark: Passive voice’s very useful when conveying a lack of understanding, or describing something like the Sympathy in Patrick Rothfuss’s book.

    “The door opened.” (A ghost or a draft, or someone on the other side of the door. We don’t know the who or the what right at that moment, just that the door is opening.)

    “He picked up one coin; the other rose alongside it and hovered in midair” – in Rothfuss’s books, according to the Sympathy magic system, if there’s a bond between the two coins, physically lifting one coin will cause both to lift, and the one you’re lifting will weigh as much as the other. (Since they’re both coins of the same denomination, the other coin will lift just as much since the bond will be efficient). Come to think of it, the Spanreed fabrials in Brandon’s Stormlight Archive are using the same basic principle (quantum entanglement) in very different ways.

    That’s the thing I’ve never understood about the complaint about passive voice – I’ve never seen anyone use passive voice more than once a page or two when they actually know what causes the act. If we know it’s being eaten by zombies, then zombies ate it. If we come into the room the next day and see the chewed remains, we know it was eaten. Analysis of the scene in this case would probably prove that it was indeed zombies, but then, zombies are not known for subtlety.

    I can see it getting tedious if you write every momentarily unknown cause that way (“The door opened; walked into the room” – technically nobody saw who opened the door, but belaboring that fact would only be worthwhile in an incident of great import. I recall a part of Dracula in which the viewpoint character is in Dracula’s shelter within Britain – there, you might want to draw out someone’s unexpected arrival because you have tension. (Or rather, you would if we didn’t already know he survived because he got a chance to write it in his diary. I know Bram Stoker wrote it a *long* time ago, but even in those days one would think that a poor choice for a horror novel.) I’ve seen some godawful writing in a role play I was a part of years ago, but even that guy didn’t abuse the passive voice. (Just our willingness to tolerate a Mary Sue and our ability to care about a character who was fundamentally lacking in characterization.) (And before you pass judgement, most of us were pretty decent and a couple were probably at least close to being worthy of publishing if they could get a whole novel cranked out at the level they were writing snippets at.)

  5. “He picked up one coin; the other rose alongside it and hovered in midair”

    You are saying this is passive voice but it is not. The other (coin) rose – it is active, not passive.

  6. Yeah. As Ed said, passive voice would be “The door was opened” or “The the other was lifted.” It still has a place in writing, to convey the importance of the object, not the subject. “The eversword is broken. All is lost.”

    It can have a great deal of impact in those cases, so long as you don’t overuse it in others.

  7. Neither of those examples use passive voice, Rashkavar. “The door opened.” is active voice. Opening is an action, and the door is the thing doing the action. Think of a sentence like “Dan screamed.” That’s not passive voice, right? There’s a person performing an action. The sentence about the door is still in active voice- the laws of grammar don’t care that doors aren’t living things.

    Passive voice versions would be things like “The door was opened” or “Dan was eaten by zombies.”

    Then, just like Ed said, the Rothfuss quote is also active. “The other coin was lifted into the air as well” would actually be what the passive voice would sound like.

    Passive voice means the sentence uses some form of “to be” alongside a real verb. Is, was, were, etc.

  8. Is passive voice OK when trying to create a tinsy bit of suspense? For instance “He was saved from further scolding by zombies” rather then “Zombies saved him from further scolding” so that you’re thinking ‘what saved him?’ instead of immedietly ‘zombies? what in the world?’

    Also what about ‘The house was covered in toilet paper’ as opposed to ‘Toilet paper covered the house’?
    Depends on the flow of the paragraph I suppose.

    Just put my manuscript through that Hemingway app and it’s flagged up a few times that I’ve used passive voice so want to check when it’s acceptable andwhen it isn’t.

  9. “beating off rapists”

    I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old, and couldn’t stop laughing.

  10. To your discussion of “deus ex machina,” my rule of thumb is that if a coincidence solves a conflict, that’s generally a no-no (especially at the end); but if a coincidence increases the conflict or leads to a new conflict, that’s a yes. Coincidences are great.

  11. Props to Mary for a useful and reasonably correct way to spot passive voice. (The “…by zombies” test.) Far too many people complain about passive voice while demonstrating that they cannot reliably identify it.

    But the best answer to “how do I avoid the passive voice” is “Don’t. Avoid weak writing, which has little to do with active or passive voice.” People have this perception that passive voice forms wimpy, vague or wordy prose, but that’s not true. Sometimes in fact the opposite is true.

    Wimpy? Here’s an example cited by Language Log: “Don’t you see? He was killed by his own doctor!” Try it in active voice: “Don’t you see? His own doctor killed him!” To my ear, the passive construction packs a much better punch.

    Vague? Not always. Active voice: “After an hour’s ride, bandits attacked the traders.” Who rode an hour, the bandits or the traders? The grammar says it’s the bandits, but the context says it’s probably the traders. It’s clearer in the passive voice: “After an hour’s ride, the traders were attacked by bandits.” (And not only clearer, but sounds better anyway. If the story is about traders, the focus should be on them getting attacked rather than on whoever is doing the attacking.)

    Wordy? Sometimes. But sometimes active voice is too wordy. Consider the passive clause “I just got paid!” (Yes, it’s passive. The passive does not always require “to be.” Other verbs like “get” and “seem” can work too. “You seem distracted. BY ZOMBIES.”) The active version would be “My company / client / zombies just paid me!” Sure, the passive version is wordy if you include “by my company / client / zombies”. But it’s perfectly fine to leave it out. “I just got paid” is great, as it puts the emphasis on me and my money, rather than on my zombie employers, whom you probably don’t even care about.

    Bottom line, do not fear the passive. It’s easy enough to misuse to create awkward, poorly flowing sentences, but so are lots of other grammatical features. Oftentimes the passive construction is exactly the right tool for the job.

    Cory: “The door opened” can be considered active voice, but really it’s intransitive (there’s no direct or indirect object), and I think the grammarians would say the active / passive voice distinction only applies to transitive verbs. So, it’s neither active nor passive. And then, just for fun, there’s middle voice: “The door opens easily.” (At least, I believe that’s considered middle voice.) It looks intransitive, but really it is transitive with an implied actor. The word “easily” doesn’t apply to the door (it’s not that the door itself goes through small effort in order to open), but to whoever might open it (a person could “easily” open it).

  12. Penny could have aligned with Dr. Horrible; they would have made a great team.

    Her death robbed her character of any growth or meaning; she was literally literary fodder.

    A cheap plot ploy I’ve still not excused.

    . . . but then, I’m still pissed off about (spoiler alert!) Book and Wash (for the same reasons). “Makes it ‘real'” by as . . . er . . . eye!

    It’s. A. Movie.

    It’s not supposed to be real. If I want ‘real’, I certainly don’t need books, movies, or TV shows.

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