Fiction Writing Terms: Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory

Every occupation has its own set of unique terms and slang. Musicians talk about riffs while machinists talk about welds. To a sailor, a floor is a deck and a wall is a bulkhead. And writers need to know about riffs and welds and decks if they’re to write knowledgeably about a particular character and setting, but they also need to understand the unique terms of the writing profession.

When I began learning the writing craft twenty years ago, I was clueless about nearly everything. I didn’t even know basic terms like MC (main character), POV (point of view), and WIP (work-in-progress). This is the beginning of a series, a list of terms I wish I’d known when I started on my own writing journey.

Active Verbs vs. Passive Verbs
(See * below for active vs. passive voice.)

“The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.” ~ William Zinsser

Active verbs show action, but passive verbs indicate a condition or state of being. Writers are often advised to avoid using passive “to be” verbs – such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been – in order to tighten and strengthen their writing. The presence of “to be” verbs might indicate a place where stronger, more active verbs can be used. The same is true of using a “to be” verb along with a verb + “ing” ending.

Robbie Blair explains it like this: “The ‘is’ verbs are connecting terms that stand between your readers and the actual description… Any time you use ‘is,’ you’re telling the reader that the subject is in a state of being. Using an ‘ing’ verb tells the audience the verb is in process. By using ‘is verbing,’ you’re telling your audience that the subject is in the state of being of being in the process of doing something.”

Here’s a simple example:

Passive: Jake was jogging along his favorite path through the forest. Birds were chirping overhead and squirrels were skittering through the trees. Jogging was the best way to clear Jake’s head.
Active: Jake jogged along his favorite path through the forest. Birds chirped overhead and squirrels skittered through the trees. Jogging always cleared Jake’s head.

It’s not possible or recommended to remove all “to be” verbs, but learning to recognize what weakens our writing is a good goal for any writer.

*Not to be confused with active vs. passive voice (sentence structure) – Frank ate the ice cream cone (subject/verb/object) vs. The ice cream cone was eaten by Frank (object/verb/subject). This type of sentence structure shifts the importance from the subject doing the action to the object receiving the action. For a more detailed explanation, read Liz Bureman’s excellent article about passive voice.

Author Intrusion
(See * below for authorial intrusion as a literary technique.)

“Author intrusion is when the author projects him or herself into the story. Let’s be clear, you will bleed into every character you write (that’s okay), but—most of the time—you, the author, are not welcome in your fictional world. You cannot expect your reader to believe the characters you are writing about are real if you keep reminding them that someone, somewhere made up this story. The very existence of you, the author, is a distraction.” ~ Shannon Dittemore

A writer might drop their own opinions into the story (which often feels preachy), or insert a dump of information about a setting or a profession (usually a result of research too good not to share), or include dialog that doesn’t fit a character. And if all characters in a story speak and act the same, it might be because they’re projections of the author’s own character and viewpoint. Author intrusion will always pull a reader out of the story and waggle a finger at the author.

Beth Hill points out, “Author intrusion is also not the skills, the special knowledge, and the personal style that a writer brings to story to give it richness and distinction. Author intrusion only becomes a problem when those skills, knowledge, and style point outside the story and toward the writer rather than drawing readers inward to the fiction.”

For more:
Go Teen Writers (but not just for teens): “Suspension of Disbelief: Author Intrusion” by Shannon Dittemore
The Editors Blog: “Weed Out Author Intrusion” by Beth Hill

* The Write Practice’s Liz Bureman writes that author (or authorial) intrusion is a literary technique used to “establish a relationship between the author and the reader where the author is an active character in the story’s narrative.” This type of acceptable author intrusion is found most often in classic literature by such authors as CS Lewis, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen but sometimes in more modern works such as The Princess Bride by William Goldman and the Lemony Snicket series of children’s books. For more, read “Authorial Intrusion: Definition and Examples.”

Backstory

“Back story is events that have happened before the narrative starts. Most stories have it—because they rarely start from the beginning of a character’s life. However, writers tend to misuse it or include too much.” ~ Roz Morris

This could include the history of a city as well as a character’s personal history. While important to understanding the story, it’s best to drop in bits here and there and avoid a data dump, especially in the first pages. Roz Morris relates this to establishing a new friend. We’re drawn to someone because of their personality, etc. but only learn their history over time and when the relationship is established. She goes on to say, “In the same way, the reader at the start of a novel can coast with a few well-deployed details—just enough to understand what’s going on. The detailed picture might not emerge for a long time.”

Go ahead and do character sketches and interviews and create a history of your city or kingdom (maps are fun too) to gain understanding of your characters, how they’ll act in certain situations, and where they fit in the larger world. But most of this backstory should just be for you, the author. Only a portion should make it onto the page. Write with this understanding and let it come out naturally in dialog, actions, setting, and how the character sees the world.

For more:
Roz Morris on Jane Friedman.com: “How to Tell If Back Story Is Sabotaging Your Novel
Writers in the Storm: “How To Deliver Critical Backstory Using The Setting” by Angela Ackerman and “Story Genius on Backstory” by Lisa Cron
Novel Rocket: “Backstory vs Character History” by Rachel Hauck
Now Novel: “How to Write Backstory but Not Bog Down Your Book

And don’t forget to study the stories that resonate with you. Chances are those authors avoid passive verbs and author intrusion, and use backstory effectively.

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Speculative Fiction Writer

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Posted in Fiction Writing Terms, Writing Fiction
4 comments on “Fiction Writing Terms: Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
  1. So a continuous verb is passive even when the simple version of the same verb isn’t? That’s confusing.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      Yes, English is a confusing language! Again, I’m not saying writers should remove all “to be” verbs, just be aware that such verbs might weaken their writing.

  2. Excellent advice for all writers. These terms help writers understand the underlying mechanics of writing clear prose or poetry!

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