Eliminate Passive Verbs
Of the four things we’re going to address, passive verbs are my favorite to hate. Primarily, that’s because I had a raging passive verb problem when I first started writing, and it’s a really hard habit to kick… or even see until someone points it out. I understand firsthand how frustrating it is at the beginning, and how sometimes it’s next to impossible to come up with a way to get rid of that blasted “was.”
So, what is a passive verb? It’s any form of the verb “to-be.”
be, being, been, am, are, was, were and is.
They seem like perfectly ordinary, useful words, don’t they? Except in commercial fiction they can be a big problem. Using too many (or any, some would say) passive verbs can destroy the impact of your writing. They are nasty, insidious little ninjas hiding amongst your words and stealing all your story’s punch when you’re not looking.
Exactly why are passive verbs a problem, though? Why should we do our best to find and kill as many of the little monsters as possible?
1- Passive verbs are almost always a big red flag for telling instead of showing. Though that’s probably the most misunderstood writing issue there is and is definitely worth an entire class on its own. (The only reason it’s not part of this one) For our purposes, we only need to know that passive verbs signal telling, and telling too much is a problem.
2- Passive verbs are also weak verbs. Often, you can kill a passive verb by replacing it with a stronger, active verb. Active verbs make more powerful prose. They pack a bigger punch.
3- Using a lot of passive verbs puts your characters into a situation where they are existing more than they are doing. It sucks away your action. So instead of watching your fantastic characters romping about on the page, the reader is watching them “just be.” Imagine that you went to a film, or turned on a TV show where the characters just sat around being and you’ll get why this is not so great on the page.
Passive writing can be the kiss of death that prompts the reader to close your book and move on to an episode of their favorite Netflix drama.
So, hopefully we can agree that we need to at least try to root out the little demons. Before we can do that, we need to find them. We could do a document search for every form of ‘to be’ (and I actually recommend doing this to see if a manuscript has a was-ing problem) but that isn’t always going to work if you have a time crunch or a very long book on your hands. It is better to train your eye to spot them during edits, and even better than that to learn not to put the things in the work in the first place.
Let’s look at three common red flags/danger areas where passive verbs are highly likely to pop up.
Ask yourself if you’re ing-ing a lot? Okay, that requires a little more explanation. Remember that rejected novel I mentioned? Well, once I worked out what the problem was, it was impossible not to see it. When I wrote the book, I thought my characters walked, talked, danced and fought their way through the novel, but when I looked at if after learning about the dreaded was, it WAS obvious what I’d done.
They “were walking,” “were talking,” “were dancing,” and “were fighting.”
If you find a lot of -ing verbs running amok on the page, odds are they have mated up with a plethora of “were” or “was.”
This one’s a little trickier to fix, but pretty easy to spot. Check every character description, setting description, etc. and you’re liable to find some was-ing. He was tall, her hair was long, it was a nice day and the town was large and full of people who were afraid of strangers. If you write in the present tense, you’re not off the hook. Replace that was with is or am and you’ll have a similar problem.
Here’s where we really get into the dove-tailed relationship between passive verbs and telling vs. showing. In the meat and bones of your story, anytime you tell us your character was angry instead of showing them clenching their fist, we’re in both passive and telling territory. If it was a devastating blow, far better to say, the blow blasted him from his feet, or the blow drove his brain into his boots. Poor guy.
I want to mention contractions simply as a side-note. It is far better to use contractions than to sound stilted and overly-formal. Please contract, for your reader’s sake, unless you have an intentionally proper character. That being said, when you are taking count of your was/were/am/are’s in a document, you have to count the ones hiding in your contractions as well. We’re is we are and a passive strike against your grand total. It’s, she’s, they’re etc. Use them, but also, count them.
That being said, how many passive verbs are too many? How many are okay? I’m going to freak you out a little bit here, but my go-to strategy is to kill them all. I qualify that with the explanation that when you try to get every last one, you are liable to leave one or two behind, and that is just about the perfect amount. As a hard and fast rule, if you have more than two or three on a page, you should probably get to work trying to rewrite at least one of them.
Tomorrow, we’ll go into strategies and solutions for doing exactly that.
On a final note, there are a lot of related, weak verbs, that can dim the power of your writing as well. Verbs like had, made, did, etc. can often be pumped up with a more specific, punchier action verb. Keeping your verbs strong goes a long way toward keeping your writing exciting and active!
For now, try this experiment. Manually scan or do a document search on your sample pages and see how many passive verbs (don’t forget your contractions) you can find. Feel free to share in the thread if you like, and tomorrow we’ll see if we can’t kill them all, and how that might change the writing.