Activating the Tenses (or, how to be more active when you tense)

In Don't Read This - It's Personal, Random Posts, Uncategorized, Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 28, 2010 at 7:56 am

Several years back I worked at a small office located on street level.  I did many things during the day, including accepting any deliveries from FedEx or UPS.  Delivery people rang the bell and I’d use the intercom to ask who was there then buzz the door for entry.

The bell rang one afternoon just after three o’clock.

“Yes?” I said pressing the Talk button on the intercom.

“Yes?” I said again, listening for a response.  It was unusual for a delivery person to wait that long to answer.  “Hello,” I tried once more but heard nothing.  Hmmm, strange.  It was enough to wrinkle my brow for a moment.

Any office has a certain rhythm.  Phone calls come in, printers creak out paper sheets, and keyboards tap in between sounds of an office chair wheeling back and forth over the plastic floor mat when one sits and stands over the course of the day.

I like the little sounds of the job.  When working I do several things at once that help create the rhythm of the day.  The doorbell rings, I type as many words as I can before the unknown caller thinks of leaving, I hit Print, grab another client folder, whirl my chair around and push the Talk button on the intercom while picking up my coffee cup.  I sip and say, “Yes?”

That’s when I hear “Delivery,” and I activate the door.

Remember my last post when I talked about minimizing the use of the verb To Be in various forms when writing?  And, yes, I know, I did go on a little about Bode Miller but it had to be said.  The reason I bring up that darn verb again is to emphasize the importance of delivery in a written piece.

Readers want to experience the rhythm of the office.  They pick up that post-it note in your story when it falls to the floor and they smell the strong coffee in a cup warm to the touch.  Then the bell rings.  They jump up to press Talk – and nothing.  Dead air.  The story stops.  They wait, wondering, impatient, until the story moves past the inactivity and resumes its rhythm.

The next time your readers hear that bell ring they want it followed up with the sound of “Delivery.”  Does it make you tense?  It should.  Using tense effectively opens the story to readers.  I listed some verb tenses in my last post.  You can go back and look if you don’t believe me.  One way to bring readers into the story is to choose the correct tense to form Active Voice.

I was confused over this for a long time.  The tense of the verb is the time it expresses.  Past tense of a verb indicates an action or situation in a preceding time.  So how do you activate a tense?  Through voice.

I should mention, there is no way to discuss verbs fully in a few paragraphs of a blog.  The verb is the most complex part of speech.  Its many forms of communication cannot be understood through meaning alone, but also through its transitive, intransitive, or linking -sometimes known as helping – forms, in person, number and tense, or voice and mood.

So, what is voice?  It’s the structure of sentences with the use of verb forms.  Voice can be either active or passive.  Each choice has its own merits.  Most fiction writers achieve the best results using a higher percentage of active voice over passive.

What’s the difference?  Examine the relationship between the subject and main verb.  In Active Voice sentences are structured with the subject of the sentence performing the verb’s action.  Active verbs move the story action along.  In Passive Voice the subject of the verb is being acted upon.  Passive structure emphasizes the receiver of the action.  Passive voice obscures who is acting and weakens the sentence, making it harder for readers to understand the meaning.  It uses more words and changes the normal action order of subject doing the action of the verb.  It’s not an incorrect usage.  When used rarely or deliberately it can be an effective technique to downplay the action or the subject actor.

And I’ll mention it again, the verb To Be links words and ideas.  When the action is represented by a ‘being’ verb the subject does nothing and the verb functions as an equal sign.  It describes a state of being and is neither passive nor active.  Again, it’s best to minimize use of the verb form To Be in fiction writing.

Review your writing and check your sentences.  Does the subject perform the action of the main verb? Good, that’s Active Voice, what you want in writing.  Or, does the subject do nothing while something else performs an action on the subject?   Not good, unless Passive Voice is used for effect and sometimes for sentence variety.  If the main verb is a linking verb, usually a form of To Be, then it functions like an equal sign and describes a state of being with no action involved.  Not the best way to keep readers involved in the story.

Now can you tell the difference between active and passive?

The UPS delivery person rang the doorbell at the office.

The doorbell at the office was rung by the UPS delivery person.

The delivery person is here.

Well, it certainly wasn’t a delivery person at the door a few years back when I worked at that small office.  Two days after that first episode, again, around three in the afternoon, the doorbell rang.  I jumped out of my chair and said Yes? as I pressed Talk.  No answer.  I’d forgotten about the unusual silence days before but the second time in two days annoyed me.  What was going on?  I sat in my chair.  I wasn’t going to bother asking again who was there.  I turned to the computer and started typing up an email.  The doorbell rang again, this time four or five times in long buzzes.  I hit Talk.  Yes?  nothing.  Yes? I said again.  silence.  Not happy, I walked out of the office to the metal gate of the main entrance.  No one waited.  I went outside and looked up and down the sidewalk.  Pedestrians passed by going either direction.  I watched them, to the right then the left, for several minutes.  No one.  Only a lone school kid, couldn’t have been more than nine-years-old, already halfway up the block, turned to look.  I went back inside, no closer to knowing who it was.

Whoever it was came back.  Every day.  Always around three o’clock but never exactly at the same time.  I couldn’t catch the person in the act.  I tried, but soon gave up.  It was a waste of time and energy.  It went on for weeks.  Even my co-worker tried to find the culprit.  He’d rush outside the minute no one responded.  Always came back as puzzled as before.  We stopped chasing that bell ringer but I never stopped being annoyed.

Then, one day, when I said “Yes?” to the ring of the bell I waited with my hand on Talk.  A young voice, barely audible, said “I love you,” over the intercom.  Did I hear correctly?  I knew I had.  I didn’t move, surprised.  Touched.

“Who is it?” my co-worker said.

“I think it’s a kid,” I told him.

He ran out the door.

I knew then it was the little nine-year-old I’d seen that day, weeks away, on the sidewalk.  Dark blue hooded jacket, baby face peeking out as he’d looked back.  I hadn’t suspected him.  He’d walked at a regular pace, not fast like someone trying to get away.  I’d seen him several times before.  Always alone.  Now my co-worker was after him.  Like he was a criminal.  And he was only a little boy who rang the doorbell every day just to one day say “I love you.”

Who knows why?  But ever since, the sound of a doorbell always makes me smile.

NEXT TIME: No clue, but I’ll think of something.


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