Passive Writing

let’s get active

In my last column, I discussed Passive Voice.

This time, we’re going to review what some writers call “Passive Writing.”

“Passive Writing” can include passive voice, but sometimes when fiction writers refer to “Passive Writing,” they’re not talking about active voice vs. passive voice sentences. They’re talking about showing not telling.

The verb to be is often involved in telling sentences:
it is, it was
he is, he was, she is, she was
there is, there are, there was, there were
this is, this was, that is, that was

This is also where some writers growl at the to be plus -ing construction, marking it as Bad or Wrong. (Sometimes it is, sometimes not. Read Past Verb Tenses to find out more.)

Words like ‘started to’ and ‘began to’ are often culprits as well.
Look for all these in your writing. Be aware of them, and use them limitedly, correctly, and wisely.

Let’s give an example of telling vs. showing:

Instead of:

She was afraid to walk down the hallway.

Try:

She swallowed, her heart pounding, as she gazed down the hallway, her feet frozen to the floor.

Okay, time for some fun. I’m going to list some telling sentences:

It was a dark and stormy night.
She was scared.
The sun was bright.
It was raining.
He began to cry.
There was a strange noise.
She started to walk away.
This was a sad day.

Now, take one or more of the sentences above, rewrite it, and, if you’re brave, post it in the Cutting Edge Forum on The Sword Review.*

Granted, not every sentence, every scene in a story needs to be shown, minor points can be glossed over to keep action moving toward a goal, but know and choose to tell consciously and purposefully.

* since those forums are no longer in existence, if you wish to do the above exercise, you could post it as a comment below.

originally published in The Sword Review 2007-02-14

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