Monday, August 8, 2011

Put action in books for children and teens -- a must

by Vivian Zabel   

Action for Children and Teens

         Youngsters enjoy good stories, whether they listen or read for themselves. However, action is needed to keep their attention, even if the reader wants them to go to sleep. Children don’t always respond to boredom by sleeping.

         “What do you mean, action is need?”

         Yes, I heard that question, and I’ll give you an answer that will improve any stories written for children.

         “What do you know about writing for children?”

         I have some published books and stories. My company publishes children’s, middle grade, and young adult books, and we have some very good ones, books that delight children and even adults. I have also studied what is needed in a good children’s story, poem, or book. I read about what other publishers and editors want.

         According to, stories for children develop mainly through action and dialogue, with concrete action from the first lines. Publishers and editors search for stories with a plot containing strong action.

         Part of action in writing of any kind concerns the use of strong action verbs. Passive voice and state of being verbs have a place in writing but should be avoided as much as possible. A good writer will replace weak verbs and passiveness with action verbs and active voice.

         “What are you talking about: action verbs, active voice, passive voice, state of being verbs?”

         All right, let’s have a brief grammar lesson. One type of passive voice uses verbs with have, had, or has as helping verbs. It denotes something that happened in the past in a passive, non-active way. An example of a sentence in passive voice with one of those helping verbs would be as follows:
The boy had begged for a dog for a long time, but his parents had wanted him to have a cat.
Making the verbs action without the sluggish helping verbs makes the sentence more interesting:
The boy begged for a dog for dog for a long time, but his parents wanted him to have a cat.

         Another way to have passive voice is to have the subject not do the action of the verb, but receive the action.
The ball was hit by the bat. The ball didn’t hit anything, but it was hit. The subject received the action of the verb, but didn’t act itself.
The bat hit the ball. The bat, the subject, did the acting.

         Now we can take this action a step further by using a stronger, more vivid action verb than hit.
The bat collided with the ball. The bat struck the ball.

         Using state of being verbs (is, am, are, was, were, been, being) can weaken any writing and shows no action. To avoid using them, sometimes a sentence must be rewritten. It was dark and gloomy. This sentence not only is vague with the use of it, a pronoun without an antecedent, but the linking verb or state of being verb, was, is weak. The moon hid behind the clouds gives the same description without using an unclear pronoun or a vague linking verb. Yes, sometimes we must use a state of being verb, but we should avoid them if possible.

           Action verbs show action, either physical or mental behavior. Active voice means that action is shown, that the subject does the action rather than being acted upon. The ball was hit by the bat is passive, not active. The subject "ball" is acted upon, does not act. The bat hit the ball is active voice because the subject "bat" does the action, hit. Yes, the past three sentences repeat information given previously, but we can all use the refresher course.

            Now, back to including action in children’s stories, poetry, and books.
       Children like action in their stories. They want to see, hear, feel things happening to the characters. They want to know what the characters do, say, experience.

         Umm … those ideas sound like what all readers of all ages want when they read and what all writers need in their work.

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  1. I hate grammar lessons ... lol ... but this actually made sense. Six years of college, and I finally understand passive/active voice.


  2. I love the action in stories, whether in novels or picture books or something in between. You can hear the rustle of a taffeta dress, the squish of mud beneath a wagon wheel or the clash of swords in a battle. You can hear the whimper of a kitten or visualize a red sky bathed in purple and gray at sunset. Thanks for the lesson, Vivian.
    As an artist I try to create action and hopefully a little story within each illustration.

  3. Passive voice... that's one I got slaughtered for when I put a chapter up to be critiqued. Now I rethink every "had" or "was" making its way into my writing. And "that".

  4. I have tried to avoid passive voice and linking verbs so long that I don't use them much, but I still have to go back and rewrite at times.


  5. We had one English class in which there could be no is,was,had, have, are, allowed in an essay. Interesting ways of creating action evolved.

  6. It seems every writer now fears the "was" and "had" and other passive voice words. :)

    Thanks for the grammar lesson, Vivian.

  7. Back before television and videos, people willingly read more boring material. Now action is a must.