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Activate passive narrative—most of the time

Imagine the following narrative in a rip-snorting high-seas adventure:

The deck was leaped upon by the pirate captain, and the sentry’s throat was slashed by the pirate’s dagger.

AAARGH! That giant sucking sound you heard in the back of your mind was the passive voice in inaction. Sure, you wouldn’t do that. You’d have done this:

The pirate captain leaped to the deck and slashed the sentry’s throat with his dagger.

Ahhh, much better. But I’ll wager that the passive voice does slip into your writing unnoticed now and then—it does mine. It’s one of the two primary suckers of juice from sentences and narrative in manuscripts I edit. They are:

• Using the passive voice instead of active.

• Using present participles with “to be” verbs (was running).

Defining active and passive voice:

Passive voice: The subject receives the action.

Active voice: the subject performs action on the object.


Passive: The hamburger and fries were eaten by Andy.

Active: Andy ate the hamburger and fries.

Passive: The guide was bitten by a croc.

Active: A croc bit the guide.

Passive: A ballad was written by Angie.

Active: Angie wrote a ballad.

Passive: Babies are kissed by politicians.

Active: Politicians kiss babies.

As you see, the problem lies with forms of the verb “to be.”

My Microsoft Word grammar Nazi puts wiggly green lines under each of the passive examples above, and putting my cursor on one of those sentences and right-clicking my mouse provokes Word to offer me an active version of the sentence. For once, Word is right. (What a wacky piece of software it can be at times.)

How to turn passive to active:

Search for “to be” verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been, then try to turn them around. Passive sentences are constructed like this: object-verb-subject. Take the subject and put it at the front of the sentence, put the object at the end, and change the verb. For example:

Passive: My book is being read by an editor. (book = object, editor = subject)

Active: An editor is reading my book.

There are times when passive voice is the right thing to do. Passive voice is good when you want to emphasize an action and what is acted on instead of the entity performing the action. Here’s an example of where the passive voice is better from a storytelling point of view:

Active: The Strategic Air Command is notifying the president that two missiles have launched.

Passive: The president is being notified by the Strategic Air Command that two missiles have launched.

Not all uses of “to be” verbs are counter-productive.

When you want to describe someone or something, it feels natural to use a “to be” verb. For example, this is fine:

Thunder was a tall, big-boned horse with a long, wild mane and insane eyes.


Be wary of combining “to be” verbs with present participles. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything with a “was” is passive, but there are sentences that are not. And a present participle — a verb with an “ing” suffix — does not equal passive. Examples:

David was running late when he tripped and fell in the puddle.

Anna is moving to New York to work for Random House.

These two examples show good uses of participles and a “to be” verb. They evoke something in process. But many of the manuscripts I edit are loaded with “inging” that drains the energy from sentences and narrative. Examples taken from samples I’ve received:

The rain was turning into snow as they drove.

Crisper: The rain turned into snow as they drove.

Dylan was circling the cabin.

Crisper: Dylan circled the cabin.

Joanne was hoping that she would get to see her family skiing.

Crisper: Joanne hoped she would get to see her family ski.

Bob was getting more and more nervous.

Crisper: Bob grew more and more nervous.

“No,” the heavy woman said, rummaging through the shopping bag she was carrying.

Crisper: “No,” the heavy woman said, rummaging through the shopping bag she carried.

Even better: “No, ” the heavy woman said, rummaging through her shopping bag.

My advice: search for forms of “to be” in your writing and see if you can activate or de-ing your sentences. If you’re writing in the past tense, “was” and “were” are the primary culprits. In the present tense, search for “is” and “are.”

Thus the advice was offered by the editor . . .ah, here comes Word’s squiggly green line again.

Disclosure: due to current overload, this post is a revisit of one of my early Flogging the Quill [1] posts. Next time I’ll shoot for original.

Image by viag. [2]

About Ray Rhamey [3]

Ray Rhamey [4] is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com [4], offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com [5].