Overuse of passive verbs is often a beginner’s mistake in writing a novel. The resultant prose can leave the reader feeling uninvolved with the story and decrease the novel’s chances of getting published.
What is Passive Writing?
What is Active Writing?
Active writing is essentially the opposite of passive writing and gives the novel a tighter, more immediate feel and one, which makes the reader feel involved with the story. The following example is a passive sentence transformed into an active sentence:
Passive: "The man was walking down the street."
Active: "The man walked down the street."
The first sentence suggests that the street was having the "walking" done to it and the man was not involved. It is passive. The second sentence suggests the man is doing the walking himself. It is active. A further weakness of the passive sentence is that it requires more words to express something.
How Not to Write a Novel
The effect of too much passive writing is culminative throughout the novel and can make the writing style feel lardy, heavy and like wading through mud. The following two excerpts demonstrate the feeling between passive writing and active writing.
Passive Example of Writing
"Jess was sitting on the mattress feeling frightened. The footsteps were getting nearer. They stopped at the top and she heard the bolt slam. She was more frightened now than ever. Justin walked into the room looking angry. Jess was shaking. He stopped in front, looking down at her."
Active Example of Writing
"Jess swallowed hard and settled Buddha-like on the mattress. The footsteps stopped at the top. The bolt slammed across the bedroom door. It gave a little squeak and then the doorjamb disengaged on the other side. Jess quivered. The door swished open. She stared at the floor, at Justin’s brogues as they whispered across the floor. She tried to stare through them but couldn’t. They stopped in front, demanding her attention."
The first excerpt demonstrates how the overuse of was, were and the use of "telling" words, such as frightened, and angry, will make the reader feel as though they are reading the story through a plastic screen.
The second excerpt has dispensed with all of the passive verbs and replaced them with the active ones: swallowed, slammed, quivered, swished, stared and whispered. It has also described the feeling of fear in the main character from her body language, causing the reader to experience the sensations with her.
Passive Active Writing
Heightened awareness of passive sentences is a good start in improving the writing style and eliminating as many redundant verbs as possible will tighten the narrative. However, one cannot eliminate every "was" and "were," for it might leave the sentences feeling contorted. For contrast in the prose, it is okay to leave a few passive sentences dotted here and there if it helps the flow. Reconstructing sentences into the active form by using dynamic and original verbs will give the story a leaner feel and draw the reader in.
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© Rachel Shirley