Passive Sentences in Stories

I’ve thought a lot about passive sentences in stories, today. Passive sentences do not engage readers as well as active sentences. This leads to editors rejecting stories, and readers ignoring stories. Then, authors are stumped as to why people don’t like their story containing a wonderful plot.

As I see it, three types of passive sentences sneak into stories. First, sentences that should seethe with action become passive. Second, authors choose the wrong subject for their sentences. Finally, descriptions slow down the action.

Fixing passive sentences filled with action, simply requires removing the form of be. For example,

Alice was chasing the rabbit.

becomes,

Alice chased the rabbit.

Fixing passive action based sentences is easy. Fixing the second type of sentence is trickier, because the subject does not do any acting, so the verb cannot actively participate in the sentence.

Let’s look at another example.

Alice was shrunk by the potion.

Alice does not act, so this sentence cannot become active. She is acted upon. Here is the key question. What acted on Alice? Answer that question, and rewrite the sentence with the actor as the subject. Suddenly, you have an active sentence.

The potion acts on Alice, is the correct answer. Now, the rewrite becomes simple.

The potion shrank Alice.

Obviously, rewriting sentences is often more complex. Sometimes the actor is not obvious. The author may have to ponder one sentence for several seconds or even minutes before the actor reveals itself, but then the rewrite falls into place.

The most common time I justify the use of forms of be in a story is when there is a comparison. For example,

The tree was tall.

Absolutely no action happens in this sentence. However even here, an author may use creative license to turn a perfectly acceptable passive into an active sentence.

The tree scraped the sky.

Suddenly the passive sentence has action.

Now pick up your favorite story that never seems to find a home, and look for any forms of be. Can you remove them, and liven up that story?

3 comments on “Passive Sentences in Stories
  1. Fantastic advice! I always have to comb through my stories to check that passive voice. Amazing what a difference it makes.

  2. Aaron Moskalik says:

    Alice was chasing the rabbit.
    This is past progressive, which is a valid verb tense that expresses something that happened over a period of time. “Alice was chasing that rabbit all week. For all I know she may still be chasing that rabbit today.”

    “Alice chased the rabbit” implies something that happened more quickly and then ultimately ended.

    Alice chased that rabbit, then enjoyed hasenpfeffer for dinner.

    Passive voice would be “The rabbit was chased by Alice.”

    The tree was tall is also not passive voice. It is simply the verb to be. This is more of a show don’t tell situation.

    The tree towered over the neighborhood.

    This shows you that the tree is tall rather than simply stating it.

    • T. Gene Davis says:

      I love this reply. Great details.

      To be clear, … I’ve seen 99% of the uses of past progressive and other uses of “to be” meant as sloppy passive voice by the authors.

      Don’t do it. Don’t fall into the trap. Don’t rationalize. Take out the red pen and fix those sentences.

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