Day three: Search and Destroy
Now that we’ve found and marked up all our passive verbs, it’s time to work out how to fix them. Sometimes the solution is obvious, but more often than not, I will stare at a was and the brain absolutely refuses to offer a better alternative. After killing a lot of them, though, you tend to get into the swing of it, and it definitely does get easier with practice.
Here are some of my suggestions for killing different types of passive verbs They are definitely not the only solutions, so if a better way strikes you, feel free to share!
For me these seem to be the easiest to eliminate. Most likely because I have had way, way too much practice at it. If your characters were dancing, simply say they danced. Every once in a while you will find a legitimate need to use the imperfect tense and you’ll want to keep the was, but if you find it happening more than once or twice a page, consider axing for the simpler past tense.
See the difference it makes in the sentence impact in these samples.
She was singing an old tune. She sang an old tune.
It was raining for hours. It rained for hours.
He was staring right at me. He stared right at me.
The active sentences are a little bit stronger. Not quite as much difference as killing a telling was, BUT, killing the ing-was is far easier and takes your total passive count down so that if you have to sneak in one or two where it’s harder to fix, you’re still not was’ing all over your manuscript.
Killing the passives in your descriptions makes a larger impact, and has a tendency to add word count too. It’s also a place we often find trickier to unravel. The results are usually a lot less telling and so very worth the effort.
He was fat. His belly rolled over the top of his sweat pants.
Her hair was long. Her hair brushed the small of her back.
The coat was old. The coat’s fabric thinned at the elbows from long use.
As far as description goes, killing the passive verbs is very much about showing vs. telling. It takes more effort and more words, but the result is stronger sentences and better imagery.
On the show vs. tell theme, we can extend the same rewording technique to kill the passives in our action and exposition and power up the prose.
He was furious. His fists balled at his sides and the skin on his face flamed crimson.
It was a rough road. Rocks jutted between the ruts, and three of the wagons lost a wheel the first day.
The cry was painful to hear. When she cried, we clapped our palms over our ears and prayed.
Much larger difference here, and much more work. But worth it overall. If you fix ninety percent of your was sentences, the added bonus is that you can use one here and there for effect, and it will actually have the impact simply by standing out.
- don’t forget the contractions.
If possible, treat a contracted passive the same as an ordinary one. Try to fix it, but whatever you do, don’t fix it by un-contracting it. More importantly, contracting a was doesn’t count as fixing it. So no fair turning all your “she is” into “she’s” and calling it a victory.
Now, let’s get to some practice. Rework the following sentences and paragraph so they’re not passive and post your Search and Destroy in the thread. Have some fun with them and see what you come up with. Then, take out your sample pages and go to town! Share with us if you like, and if you prefer the passive (in some cases you will) share that too.
Goblins are green and vicious little monsters.
In the center of the library was a long, oak counter.
It was nearly morning when she noticed that it was raining.
While they were dancing, he was quiet as a mouse.
The pups were fat and happy.
The pack was hunting for three days.
It was a gruesome scene.
It had been a rough day. Sue was tired, bone tired, and she still had two blocks to go. Her shoes were too tight, and the stiff heels were cutting into the back of her ankle. It was late. The sky was already streaked with indigo. Sue was almost to her front step when the homeless man surprised her. He was filthy, and his voice was a low growl.
“You need help, lady?” he asked.
“No.” She was already backing away. “I’m fine, thanks.”