Ninja Writers Academy: A is For Active Voice, Action, and Acts

I thought it would be fun to do a Ninja Writer Academy series: The ABCs of Fiction Writing.

Let’s start at the very beginning. With the letter A, of course. And A is for Active Voice, Action, and Acts. Plus, an important little bonus dose of Audacity at the end.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Active Voice

Let’s get the grammar part out of the way.

A passive voice is an ACTUAL thing. It’s when the subject of a sentence is just sitting there (passively) having something done to it.

Here are some examples of passive voice:

Beauty was kissed by the Beast.

Humbert was infatuated by Lolita.

The books were burned by Montag the Fireman.

See how that works? Beauty, Humbert, and the books are the subjects of these sentences and they just sit there being DONE TO.

Let’s make those sentences active.

The Beast kissed Beauty.

Lolita infatuated Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burned the books.

There we go. Now we have an active voice. The previous subjects become the objects and the subjects now are: the Beast, Lolita, and Motag. And they are actively acting.

They can also be present tense.

The Beast kisses Beauty.

Lolita infatuates Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burns the books.

These sentences are technically active, but weak enough to feel wishy-washy or passive-like:

The Beast was kissing Beauty.

Lolita was infatuating Humbert.

Montag the Fireman was burning the books.

Meh. Right? Use a good, solid past (or present) tense verb and most times you’ll have an active voice going on.

Do This:

You can start by searching your whole manuscript for the word ‘was’ and the verb ending “-ing.” Get rid of as many as you can. That will help you make sure you’re using nice strong active verbs.

If you have any actual passive verbs (remember, that’s the subject of the sentence having something done to it) cut that out.


A couple of years ago I went to a conference where the author Walter Dean Myers was the keynote speaker.

First: he was amazing.

Second: the thing he taught that stuck with me the most was the idea of making sure that every scene in your book has an action.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy balls-to-the-wall action. You probably don’t want your entire book to be one giant fight scene, broken up with car chases and skydiving.

But if you’re going to have two characters talking to each other, make sure they’re doing something that moves the story forward while they do.

The action can tell the reader something about the character or the situation. It can move the story forward by solving a problem through action (sometimes a car chase/fist fight/skydive is necessary after all.)

Do this: 

Walter Dean Myers spoke at a conference I went to about how he comes up with 30 key scenes as part of his pre-writing and makes sure each one has an action. It’s a great exercise.


This one is pretty simple and I bet you already know it.

Every book-length story has three acts. Basically: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m not blowing you away here, right?

Usually, the beginning and end of a book are each about one quarter of the whole, and the middle is half of the story that can be divided in half.

That’s right.

Modern stories generally follow a FOUR act structure. We just call it a three act story because we always have, since cavemen pretty much.

Thinking of your long second act as two acts is useful for a couple of reasons.

It reminds you to put a climactic scene in the middle of the book, which helps make sure your second act doesn’t sag.

And it gives some structure to build your subplots around.

Do this:

Go to and read how a bunch of your favorite movies break into three acts. It helps to see how a story you can take in all in a sitting fits into this structure.

Bonus A word: Audacious.

If you spend anytime at all around writers, you are definitely going to hear some variation on this theme: I’m never happy with anything I write.

It’s almost like writers think that to be taken seriously, they have to think they suck.

The thing is though that it’s a long, often lonely road between wanting to be a writer and being published so that anyone other than your mother and your best friend can read what you write.

I’m just going to be very blunt here.

If you don’t love your story, how are you really going to expect anyone else to.

It’s okay (and maybe essential) to know that you’re still learning. It’s fair to understand that you are still a work in progress.

But for God’s sake, if you hate your work, don’t expect readers to love it.

Do this: 

Give yourself permission to have the audacity to believe that you’re talented and that you’re writing a killer story. You’re going to need it.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 3/12/17 from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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