Tuesday, November 09, 2010


copyright: Cheryl St.John

Passive words suck energy from your writing! Shifting from passive to active voice saves at least two words per sentence. ‘Is’ and the rest of the ‘to be’ family are passive—am, are, was, were, will be, have, has, had, been, will have been, be, suddenly, and caused. Any verbal construction employing ‘is’ or ‘was’ can weaken a sentence.
          Caused, as, and when usually indicate a motivation/reaction unit out of whack.
          The subject of the sentence MUST ACT, rather than being ACTED UPON.  The knife was thrown by John is passive. John threw the knife is active
          *She was carrying the child in her arms.
          She carried the child.

          *There was a tree growing in the atrium.
          A tree grew in the atrium.

          *She had a happy look on her face.
          She looked happy. Better yet: Sarah smiled.

          *She will be tried in court today.
          Her trial begins today

Watch for these words:

To be is always passive. (Occasionally, you will use ‘to be’ in dialogue.) “You just have to be a smart aleck, don’t you?”
          *Darla wanted to be a dancer.
          Darla never wavered from her goal. Someday she would dance on stage.

Would be: sometimes ‘would be’ is the only way to say what will happen.
          *The day would be warm and clear
          *The day promised to be warm.
          The early sun promised a warm day.

          *She started to feel sick.
          Her stomach turned.
          *Sally turned to knead the dough.
          Sally worked the dough into a soft ball.

To is appropriate when approaching the act: plowed his fingers through his hair to knead the back of his neck—lifted the cup to drink—paused to read.

          *Members of the group elected officers.
          Group members elected officers.

          *Members of the party could not be reached for comment.
          No members could be reached for comment.

There; A ‘to be’ verb usually follows ‘there’. There was, there is, there has been.

          *There is something strange here.
          Something strange lurks here.

That, made, felt (you will use an occasional felt) with, began or began to, allowed, let, found, as, when, while, then, was and were are usually passive.

                   *He began shooting his rifle.
                   He drew and fired in a single swift motion.

                   *She began brushing her hair.
                   She pulled the brush through her hair.

                   *She knelt and began trying to tug weeds.
                   She knelt and tugged at the stubborn weeds.

          If you want an incomplete action—like: she knelt and began trying to tug weeds—because the action is interrupted or meets resistance, say so! Active verb plus resistance:
                   Marjorie knelt and tugged at the stubborn weeds. A shadow fell across her hands. Turning, she recognized the man looming over her.

          Note, too, how each sentence begins differently, Instead of:
                   She knelt. Her hands began to tug the weeds. Suddenly, she sensed someone above her. She looked up.

By the way, body parts performing functions without the person are passive : Her hands began to tug the weeds.

          *A hand trailed up her arm.
          *A finger traced her lips.
          He rubbed a calloused palm the length of her arm.
          With one finger, he traced her lips.

If your character can’t see any other part of the person, or if you desire a surprise, you can get away with ‘body parts’.
A hand, warm and comforting, squeezed her shoulder.
          She turned to meet Derik’s emerald gaze.

Looked is passive besides being a weak verb.
          *The dress she was wearing looked pretty.
          She wore a pretty dress.
          Better yet. let’s assume she’s wearing the dress and not carrying it:
          Her dress was the color of a spring sky on a frosty morning.

Possession is another passive problem area.
          *The house that belongs to Jack
          Jack’s house
          *the edge of the bed
          the bed’s edge

Additional help for vivid writing:

Show not tell

          Adverbs add spice. Use sparingly. Many times adverbs are a sign of ‘lazy writing’. They tell rather than show.
          *”Get out!” Mary said, angrily.
          “Get out!” Mary grabbed the vase and hurled it at his retreating back.

          *”I don’t want you to go,” Timmy said, sadly.
          “Don’t go.” Enormous tears rolled down Timmy’s freckled cheeks.

Punch up the verbs!

          Ran quickly—raced, shot, sprinted
          Sat abruptly—plopped, fell
          Cried openly—sobbed
          Walked around carefully—skirted, hedged
          Said angrily—screamed, yelled, screeched—better yet, show it! Throw something or hit the table.
Again, show rather than tell
          *John is tall
          John ducked beneath the six-foot awning.

Jude Devereaux says, “Rather than describing my characters, I try to come up with action to show what they’re like.

Use similes and metaphors

Use specific nouns

          The rose rather than the flower. The burley lumberjack rather than a man.

Use action verbs.
          Slumped rather than sat. Bolted or crawled rather than went. Gazed, stared or shot a venomous glare, rather than looked.

Qualifiers dilute a sentence. They are: just, very, almost, even, somewhat, really, slightly, hardly, barely, nearly, quite, rather. Delete altogether or change the word qualified to a stronger or more explicit word.
          *George was slightly angry.
          George was angry (‘was’ is passive)
          Miffed, George ignored the gibe.

          *Nancy was very tired.
          Exhausted, Nancy suppressed a yawn.

Run on sentences

          Vary length and construction, and don’t try to say too much because if you do you will probably end up using some passive words to string the clauses together, and when that happens your sentence is ineffective, believe it or not, and you wouldn’t want that to happen because you end up burying the action, and that gets confusing.

It is weak and ineffective. Replace ‘it’ whenever possible. Reconstructed, your sentences will be stronger.
          *Wanda picked up the steaming kettle and carried it to the table.
          Wanda carried the steaming kettle to the table.
          *She took the tube of lipstick from her purse and applied it to her lips.
          She applied the lipstick she always carried in her purse.

A note about purple prose:

          Purple prose is flowery writing, more rhythmic, lyrical, figurative, abstract and emotion-filled. Sentence length is longer. Time seems to extend into the past of future. The prose ‘opens up’ time, transcending a particular moment.
          Effective and moving prose must be used in the right place, consciously, sparingly and well. In his section on pacing, Swain suggests longer sentences for sequels, shorter sentences for scenes and action. Save ‘purple prose’ for moments that are not only emotional, but thematically significant. A character undergoing a change, a life changes forever, end of chapter, end of section or scene (not end of book.)
          Not during a climactic scene (the house is on fire and your heroine admires the sunset). Not every time you character feels something or when two men are talking.


  1. Oh thank you, thank you for giving examples!! Sometimes life is just too abstract without them.

  2. Great reminders of good writing Cheryl! My rough drafts are always full of passives, so I go back and weed them out the next day. (This also helps get me back into the flow of the story for that day's new stuff.)

  3. Thanks so much. This really helps!