Friday, January 4, 2008


***A Note to You: I will be in Sedona, Arizona for a week of vacation, hopefully enjoying some warm weather, so I will not be blogging during that time. I will post again when I return on Monday.***

Suspense, mysteries, and westerns are not the only genres that need action. Keeping your story filled with action-packed verbs helps the plot to move and creates a "page-turner." Passive voice is only one kind of inactive writing. Selecting inexplicit verbs and "deadwood" sentence structure also keeps you from creating a moving, active plot.

The English class definition of passive voice is exchanging the positions of the subject and the object in a sentence. In active voice, the subject is doer; it does something. In passive voice, the subject receives the action. The note was signed by him rather than He signed the note. In most cases, the subject should carry the action.

Notice the word "was" in the first example. The "to be" verbs, such as: is, was, are, were, be, been, and being are usually connected with passive voice. Still, writers should not totally exclude these verbs in their writing. The "to be" verbs are sometimes needed in predicate nominative and predicate adjective sentences, like, She was beautiful, He was quiet or They were soldiers.

Different forms of passive writing can dilute a good story. The overuse of predicate adjectives and nominatives, using weak or general verbs, using "deadwood" phrases, and telling not showing are all forms of writing that keeps the reader from feeling the action of the novel.

Predicate Nominatives and Adjectives
Obviously, the showing is better than telling. When you use predicate nominatives and adjectives, use them when a description will not enhance the action or when descriptive language will slow the scene.

While predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives are useful at times, you can be far more affective and enhance the description by forgetting the "to be" verbs and creating word pictures that say even more. Let’s look at those three examples above:

Predicate adjective: She was beautiful.
Improved: Her angel face glowed in the sunlight while golden curls surrounded her cheeks like a halo.

Predicate adjective: He was quiet.
Improved: If she didn’t see him sitting there, he could have been a mouse in the corner, silent and cautious.

Predicate Nominative: They were soldiers.
Improved: They paraded into the room, their feet moving in procession, their uniform buttons glinting like their spit-polished boots.

Notice the lack of the "to be" verb (was and were) in each of the improved sentences. In each case, you can envision the person rather than just being told something about them. The improved version of these sentences are much more active than passive.

Explicit Verbs
Using explicit verbs is an excellent way to improve writing. Rather than saying she walked through the doorway, try a word that better describes her movement: bolted, dashed, charged, paraded, moseyed, sashayed, meandered, ambled, glided. Each of these verbs creates a different word picture than the unspecific action of "to walk."
Compare these two sentences.
She walked through the doorway with her nose in the air.
She sashayed through the doorway, her importance flagging her audience with every sway of her hips.

Which sentences paints the more lively characterization? Obviously by changed walked to sashayed animates the character and allows the reader to truly see this character in action.

Deadwood Kills Action
Another writing problem is using "deadwood" phrases. These are words that add nothing to the sentence except length. In Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, the authors use these examples: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground compared to Dead leaves covered the ground." Notice fewer words, yet a more lively sentence. The reason the second sentence sounds better is because the words "there were" have no meaning. There isn’t the subject of the sentence. The subject and verb have been buried in the middle of the sentence. Look at this example:

It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.
Removing all the "deadwood" from this sentence gives a clear, concise meaning with the subject in the forefront and an active verb.
He soon repented his words.

Showing not telling
Most of the examples above illustrate the difference between showing and telling. We show when we use vivid words that brings the scene to life. When our descriptions create word pictures, emotion and emphasis action rather than only telling the reader. He was angry, for example, creates no emotion, we cannot see the anger nor the action his anger elicits, and again the telltale "to be" verb is the culprit. He sprang from the chair, toppling it to the ground, and smashed his fist against the tabletop. Now that’s anger. We see it. We feel it. We react to it.

Active Writing
As you inject more action into your writing, remember that action is more than doing things and going places. If well-chosen active verbs are used to create vivid word pictures, internal thoughts can draw the reader into the story and create emotion as effectively as a car chase scene in a movie scene.

Improve your writing by avoiding the straight predicate adjectives, by removing the "deadwood" from your sentences, and by selecting the most vivid, descriptive verb to show action, but remember that active writing is more than using an action verb or filling the narration with descriptive passages. It is grabbing your reader by the hand and pulling them into your story with compelling and emotional narration and dialogue.


Suzanne Lieurance said...


Great tips for how to avoid passive writing. I'll send some of my coaching clients here to read it. Thanks so much.

Suzanne Lieurance
The Working Writer's Coach

Sylvia C. said...

You cover so many bases here.

Thanks so much!

Sylvia C.

Susan Lohrer said...

Gail, super examples. And I love that you mention there's a place for passive voice in our writing.

I'll be sending clients here too. Great job! :-)

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks to all of you who've sent positive comments. I'm so pleased this was helpful. I've been away for a week's vacation so I'm just now responding.

If your clients are writing Christian fiction, I'd love you to tell them about my book Writing the Christian Romance -- which works for all Christian genre that has romance and even some that doesn't. The book covers plain old good writing techniques.


Anonymous said...

I find passive writing can be hard to identify in your own writing.

That's why I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to automatically identify this and dozens of other writing problems. I wouldn't be published without it!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

The problem with an automtic critque system is that it doesn't always work for fiction. In fiction our deep POV narrative and dialogue is written in the style of the character so grammar will often be wront. We speak in fragments and our line of thought isn't alway the same. A person who critiques work and is a novelist can better understand the uniqueness of fiction rather than a program.

MiketheBook said...

What are the rules regarding passive writing in dialogue? It seems to me that we all use the verb "to be" so much in our normal speech . . . was, is etc. Should we try and remove these from our writing or will that make the speech sound stilted and formal?
Thanks for any help you can give. I'm trying to do final edits on my first novel, a Christian fantasy for children

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mike -- Good question. Dialogue should be natural and we do use passive voice and passive sentences in our speaking - so there it is acceptable. Normally we want our narrative to be active to arouse vivid word pictures. Not so in dialogue -- unless you have a very well-educated character who spews on about such things, then that would be part of characterization.

Thanks for the good question.

MiketheBook said...

Thanks for the helpful answer. As I work on my book it occurs to me that the same "rule" probably applies to indirect speech and thoughts, as much as it does to direct dialogue. Am I right? It is the straight narrative that needs to be rid of passive writing and the use of the verb "to be?"

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mike - Introspection in deep POV is a person talking to him or herself -- so it would have the same properties as dialogue. It should sound natural and not be stinted.

Narration such as descriptions, transition scenes and action other narrative text should follow the active writing as much as possible.


MiketheBook said...

What place does the continuous tense ("he was running") have in good creative writing.The verb "to be" crops up again though it is not a passive tense. But is it still a passive voice to be avoided where possible? Indeed, from what you write, it seems that "to be" should be avoided wherever possible except in dialogue or indirect speech.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mikethebook - He was running is appropriate when you are using past continuous tense (also called the past progressive tense). When I arrived in the park, he was running.

When I came home, she was reading.

It's when two things are happening at the same time and one is not completed. Arrived is completed, but her reading was continuing.

I use the to be verbs at times when trying to not use one becomes convoluted. It's better when you can to use a more vivid verb, but is, are, was, were, been, being, and be -- so have a purpose, but use them only when there's no other way. That helps keep your writing vivid, memorable and more active.


MiketheBook said...

Thanks Gail. That's very helpful. Incidentally, have you ever come across the Passivator, a useful little web-based tool for seeking out all your "to be" verbs as well as "ly's" adverbs though it doesn't pick them all up. A useful scan. You have to save your word doc as a web page and then press the Passivator link. Worth a try. It can be found at:

P.S. Such a great site you have.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mike - Thanks for the tip on the Passivator. I think I'll share the link with this site since it is a great tool for writers. I'll give you credit.

Thanks again,


MiketheBook said...

A further note on the Passivator, I've just found that having run it you can actually cut and paste the colour coded text back on to a Word document which becomes your new manuscript and it is easy then to edit the annotations as you see fit, rather than having to refer to the web page version.

Sorry but I have another question on active writing. Since I'm writing a children's book (9-12) I was advised to read more children's books and have just finished reading a highly successful fantasy recommended to me. I was shocked by the prolific use of "was" and "were" etc in virtually every sentence. How did such a novel get published like this or does a good story simply override good writing? Or is such writing more acceptable in children's literature? Do you have any further thoughts on this please?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Mike - Since I don't write children's books, it's difficult for me to answer this question. Sometimes I think the publisher looks at the story more than the qualities of good writing. Children accept simplicity, but I think action verbs are still important. I would note the qualities in those books of building story and plot, creating tension and conflict and then write with your writers voice which may be to avoid the "to be" verbs.

I prefer to use action verbs but I still use many forms of "to be" because it sounds more natural in the way I'm using the words or it is something that can be said more simply and I don't have the need to be more emphatic. Example: She had been quiet as a child. If I avoid had been - it would pull me out of the thought of the character and the scene would have to be dramatized. That isn't necessary for that line. It's a judgment call at times. Use good sense and use action verbs where they will add something important and allow some "to be" verbs when it's a line that's needed but not that important. Hope that makes sense.


MiketheBook said...

Thanks Gail.


Faithful said...

Wow! This was really helpful. I can improve my writing now! Thanks Gail.

P.S. I've nver gotten d chance 2 read ur books, but with all dis great tips, I certainly will!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Faithful - Thanks. I'm glad you find it helpful. You can check out my books on my website at or just look on under books: Gail Gaymer Martin. I also have an anthology in stores now, called Monterey Memories.

Happy reading.