Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nixing the Passive. On With the Active!

I recently read through my second contemporary novel’s first draft. Wow. Mess is one way to describe, but passive is a more correct adjective. And I realized that along with too much character introspection, my writing was much too passive to truly draw the reader into the scenes.

As readers we want to become invested in action. We want to feel the drama of the characters and join their world. Passive writing won’t do that. You can’t feel the thump of a heartbeat in passive description. You can’t smell the fried foods or taste fear on the back of your own tongue when the writing doesn’t paint that vivid picture.

What can you change to take your writing from passive to active?

Vivid Verbs

Your words pack punch. Or they can. Chose the strongest verbs, the best descriptions and put yourself in that scene. What would you think or feel or touch or smell or taste? All of the senses in some way play a role in every scene, in every emotion. What one different sense can you use for your character in each scene to make it come alive? Think along the lines of taking an emotion and giving it a personality.


Dialogue is always active. A lot of mistakes can be made with dialogue, but no matter what, it is always forward action. Tell the story between the quotes (via Rachel Hauck). One of the best pieces of advice I was given this year at the ACFW conference was from Cynthia Ruchti. Cynthia told me to take my characters’ thoughts and put them into dialogue. Instantly your character will look less self-centered and move the plot forward in a natural way.


When in doubt kill a character.

Okay, so that Mary Connealy advice doesn’t work for all writers, but therein lies the truth. When writing your story—or actually as you go through and edit your story, look for every opportunity to give your characters an action to perform. Even something as simple as grocery shopping can produce tension when you utilize the right emotions and verbs to make an active scene that is indicative of their inner emotions.

Passive writing is not hopeless. Rather, look at it as a palette that still needs a splash of color. You have laid down the ground work for the story. You’ve got the characters, the basic emotions, the motivations and where you want the story to go. Now you need to take that great beginning and craft it. One thing I love to do is take each scene and leave it up in a neighboring window. Then start re-writing it in a second window, but this time, don’t settle for the easy and push beyond the passive to write in the active.

What suggestions do you have to conquer passive writing?


Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people.


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Sherrinda said...

I have struggled with this passive thing too! Your tips are great...and I really love Mary C's advice! Kill somebody!!!! lolol

Beth K. Vogt said...

In my critique groups, we like to highlight our passive words with highlight. Well, really, we'd rather not have it show up at all! But it helps to see them in glowing color. Makes it more easy to fix 'em. It's a simple tool, really. We have a rainbow of colors when we're critiquing each others' manuscripts. Makes it fun, in a whole new way!

Lindsay Harrel said...

I like these ideas. I think it is so good to go through each chapter with a fine-toothed comb and change the passive words if you can. Sometimes it seems difficult to find an active verb to replace the passive one, but then you can think about rearranging the sentence. I'm curious what others it ok to use passive verbs some of the time? I know they should be limited, but aren't there times they are kind of necessary if you don't want to sound extremely formal? Just a thought. Also, I think it sometimes depends on where you want your emphasis to be...but I know not all writers and editors agree with that. Interesting discussion!

Casey said...

JAMIE, I'm glad they were useful! Thanks. :)

SHERRINDA, but of course. It should be everyone's first resort. ;-)

Casey said...

BETH, I love that. Great way of making the passive pop. ;)

LINDSAY, you can't write a book without a 'was'. Plain and simple and if you do write a book with only active verbs, it's going to make your story sound over-dramatic and stilted. Just like there comes a time to tell (because you'll end up with 1,000 pages if you show everything ;), there comes a time when a bit of passive does even out the story writing equation. It should be used very sparingly though and with the best possible reasons on the part of the author. :)

Joanne Sher said...

These are FABULOUS tips, Casey! Loved the one about turning introspection into dialogue. Am gonna have to use that one SOON.

Casey said...

JOANNE, it was something that hit me between the eyes too! Great tip!

Lindsay Harrel said...

That was my thought too, Casey! Just glad to know I am not alone in that thought. Thanks!

Casey said...

No, you're not Lindsay. With every rule comes an excuse to break it. ;-) It just needs to be a good one!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks, Casey.
These are great tips. I'd write more, but am between work projects.

Casey said...

Life happens like that doesn't it Mary? I have a feeling I'm not going to get much writing done the month of February. B.U.S.Y!

Angie Dicken said...

Great tips, Casey! Many of my passive sentences were fixed by nixing a couple of words, like "she thought" and turning a "she wondered" sentence into a question without wondered in it. Does that make sense?
Thanks for posting about this!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great tips, Casey. I'm almost (finally!) done with my first ever rough draft. Then, I'll begin the re-writes, and changing of the passive voice. I'm kind of excited. :)

Love what Angie said, too. I'm learning to do that--turn things into a question my character is thinking. Same wavelength today, I guess. :)

Still having computer issues today, so in case this doesn't come up with "me" on the head of the comment, it's
Jeanne T

Pepper said...

Yep, been there...AM there :-)
Great tips, Case.
And I'm all for Mary Connealy advice. Bring on the shotguns, cliff-hangers, and ship explosions!! :-)

Casey said...

ANGIE, I had one of those sentence in the beginning of my latest novel. But I *really* loved the cadence of the sentence...until three separate people told me to nix it. I nixed it. ;-)

JEANNE, you popped up! And wooo-hoooo on that rough draft completion!! Awesome accomplishment. :D

PEPPER, we should form a support group...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm still working on the passive.