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How To Improve Your Writing Style
Write Active, Engaging Sentences That "Show" Rather Than "Tell" (Part 2 of 2)

© 2007 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

Last month, the first part of this article concentrated on General Sentence Structure. (If you missed that article, click here.) This month, our attention turns to a trickier aspect of writing, Passive Voice and Passive Sentence Construction. The good news is that you can systematically search out sentences that are poorly constructed and rework them. Small improvements can produce a big pay-off in reader satisfaction. Let's review this second area and determine ways to write active, engaging sentences that "Show" rather than "Tell."


We've all heard teachers exhort us to "Show! Don't Tell," but what does that mean?
When a writer is "Telling" in excess, the reader doesn't experience the story but instead has to do a lot of extra work to imagine what hasn't been given on the page. This often results in a boring or frustrating encounter with the story. The reader plods through the flat and uninspiring book-or, even worse-may abandon it altogether.

When you use passive voice in your sentence construction, you slow the reader's journey through your prose. Eliminate the passive, and your writing becomes crisper and more vibrant. Your images surge to the forefront. You'll gain a lot more yardage from every sentence.

Here's An Example

Spot the Passive Voice:
She was washing her dirty car.
This is passive and flat Telling.
She washed her dirty car.
Not passive, but still entirely flat.
Even more ideal is the way this next sentence combines images, action, and idea:
The soapy water dripping from the sponge left clean swipes in the dirt on her dark green Subaru.
This is active and Shows rather than Tells.

Look at how much more visual and sensory that last one is! More words are used, yes, but none are passive, and there's no boring Telling. You can almost feel the water, see the soapy sponge, experience washing the car with her.

Spot the Passive Voice:
He could feel the wind that was on his face.
This is passive and flat Telling.
He felt the wind on his face.
Not passive, but still sounds somewhat flat and soulless.
Even More Ideal:
At 75 miles per hour, the wind pressed against his cheeks like a cool, damp rag. His eyes watered uncontrollably.
This is active and Shows rather than Tells.

In the last version, we feel the wind "with" him, and the experience is much more sensory. We don't even know the character's name, but he's vastly more interesting in the more descriptive sentence.

One way to determine whether a sentence is passive or not is to:

  • Identify the subject - the actor - of the sentence.
  • Identify the verb - the action - of the sentence.
  • Examine whether the subject/actor performs the action or is acted upon.
If the subject/actor performs the action of the verb, the sentence is active. (We all hate the new TV show.) If the action/verb does its work without the subject being much of a part of it, the sentence is passive. (The new TV show is hated by all.)

Passive voice moves the object of a sentence to the forefront, and the doer or actor (and sometimes even the action) takes a backseat. Not only is this construction slow to read, it's abstract and boring.
Object ~ verb/action ~ subject
The kite    was flown    by Victoria.

Subject ~ verb/action ~ object
Victoria        flew        the kite.
Passive Voice v. Past Tense
Don't confuse passive voice with past tense. Passive voice generally is in past tense, but not always. Voice focuses on the Who of the sentence; tense focuses on the When.

     Passive Voice Active Voice
Past Tense I was singing or I have been singing.
It was sung or It has been sung.

I was swimming or I have been swimming.
It was swum or It has been swum.
I sang.

I swum.
Present Tense:
I am singing; It is being sung by me;
I am swimming; It is being swum by me.
I sing.

I swim.
Future Tense It will be sung by me.

It will be swum by me.
I will sing.

I will swim.

Some of those passive voice versions sound ridiculous, don't they? Unfortunately, once a writer gets in the habit of using the passive voice, it's difficult to root it out.

Forms of To Be to Watch Out For
Another method for isolating passive sentences is to simply look for sentences using forms of the verb "to be." When you find that this is so, you'll need to root out the passive like weeds. Here are some of the prime offenders:

is was are had been have been
be become could be would be could have been

In addition, only when you find it absolutely necessary to relate past events should you use verb forms such as:

had been would have been had had

Here are some passive phrases to watch out for:

Passive Phrase Example of Passive Construction Better Revisions
Could see or hear or taste or smell or sense She could see the guitar and liked it. She saw the guitar. -or-
She liked the guitar. -or-
She saw the guitar and liked it.
Could feel
She could feel his hot breath on her neck. She felt his hot breath on her neck.
Would be Mark would be arriving. Mark arrived. -or-
Mark planned to arrive at...
Prepared to The candidates prepared to leave. The candidates scooped up their packets and filed out of the meeting room.
Started to She started to sing off-key. She sang off-key.
Began to Chris began to fix breakfast. Chris got out the eggs and bread to make French toast. -or-
Chris fixed breakfast.
Attempted to Lily attempted to hammer the tiny nail into the wall. Lily hammered the tiny nail into the wall. -or-
Lily was not able to hammer the tiny nail into the wall.
Seemed to The Ferris wheel seemed to be large The Ferris wheel spun on its giant axis, fifty feet off the ground.
In order to In order to stop the deadly detonation and save the world, she turned the key. To stop the deadly detonation and save the world, she turned the key. -or-
She turned the key to stop the deadly detonation and save the world.
Of which Martin thought of the many worse days ahead, of which this was only one. Martin thought of the many difficult days ahead.
That had Susan hated the portrait that had been over the mantel. Susan hated the portrait over the mantel.
With which Julia grabbed her suitcase, with which she had traveled for six years. Julia grabbed the suitcase she'd traveled with for the past six years.

A Caveat
The passive voice is not always wrong in fiction. You will have to choose when its use is appropriate. Passive works best under these circumstances:
  • When you wish to show that no one is taking responsibility for an action. (Mistakes were made.)
  • When you want to downplay whatever happened. (The micro-surgery was a success.)
  • When the person who took the action is unknown; (Graffiti was sprayed all over the house.)
  • When you're trying for a particular, calculated effect, mood, or tone.
Obviously Charles Dickens was going for a particular effect when he wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France..."

Please Note: We don't have as much latitude for flat repetition in this new millennium as Dickens had in 1859.

Further Examples of Active v. Passive and Tense

Tense Passive Active
Present Simple Exercises are being done at the gym. Athletes exercise at the gym.
Present Continuous
A kite is being flown by Joseph. Joseph is flying a kite.
Past Simple The best kite was built by Jim. Jim built the sturdiest kite.
Past Continuous
Jumping jacks were being done by my friends when I got started. My friends were doing jumping jacks when I got started.
Present Perfect Over fifty kites have been crashed by us in the past week. We have crashed over fifty kites in the past week.
Future Intention With Going To
A phone call is going to be received by Sally from the gym owner. The gym owner is going to call Sally.
Future Simple The new kites will be purchased on Saturday. I will buy the new kites on Saturday.

Use the Global Search function on your computer to go through your manuscript and highlight all instances of passive usage as noted above. When you find that you have a tendency toward the various awkward or passive sentence constructions, put them on a list so that you can systematically root them out when you are ready to edit and revise.

Be alert to sentence structure and clean up your passive language and passive voice. You will improve your fiction writing substantially. In fact, these revisions alone will garner you some of the biggest payoffs of any that you employ as you edit your manuscript.
© 2007 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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