Active Voice, Passive Voice, and Stative Sentences

One of the easiest ways to check and improve your writing in the editing phase is to target passive and stative sentences and convert them to active sentences where possible. Passive voice has a definite use, particularly in journalism and non-fiction, where it allows for a neutral tone. However, in fiction, active voice moves the story along and allows for demonstrative phrases, while passive and stative sentences push your writing into telling mode.

Check for “Was”

“Was” is an indicator of passive or stative use.

Consider the notorious Bulwer-Lytton opening line:

It was a dark and stormy night.

As it stands, this opening simply tells the reader what the night is. What kind of storm is the author talking about? Is there lightning? If so, it won’t be dark all the time. Asking yourself questions about what you’re editing is a great way to dig deeper into your own imagination.

To convert this opening to active voice, let’s try:

Lightning interrupted the dark night.

Now the reader begins to imagine the scene for himself as he’s given a visual cue. Use your characters as observers and think about what they are experiencing through their senses: lightning, thunder, the smell of rain, wet and cold. The senses are a gateway to drawing your reader into the experience of your story.

Trust Your Reader to Make Connections

It was cold outside. Marcie shivered.

Marcie’s shivering makes it fairly clear that it’s cold; use her senses rather than stating the obvious.

As Marcie stepped outside she began to shiver uncontrollably, tugging her thin cardigan tighter around her body.

Stative Sentences Do Have Their Place

Don’t get too wrapped up trying to rid your story of every sign of passivity. Over-showing is as ineffective as over-telling, because the effect is lost when everything is demonstrated.

If it is a small detail not vital to the plot just tell the reader and move on.

Marcie look at the messages on her desk and picked up the one from Hannah. She grimaced as she remembered her parents forcing her to watch her sister give birth to Hannah twenty years ago.

As a demonstrative sentence, this reveals plenty of information about Marcie, her childhood, and her parents, but it is awkward. For the sake of this example, let’s presume the event has no bearing on the plot; as unnecessary information it simply loads the reader with more to remember.

Marcie picked up the message from Hannah, her niece.

(“was” is implied in this compound sentence).

Take control of the technical voice of your story as well as your authorial voice and you'll find ways to improve your writing and deepen your story.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in September 2007. © Elsa Neal

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