How You Can Use Needlenose Pliers to Pluck Out Passive Verbs


Today’s Tool:  THE NEEDLENOSE PLIERS–these are small pliers with long thin jaws used for fine work. We’re going to use these babies to pinch out those boring, passive sentences and make your work FINE.

But first you need to know the difference between a passive and an active sentence, and showing versus telling. Do you? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t. Sometimes I still struggle. Let me see if I can show you the difference.

First, why should you care?

Agents and publishers will reject your stories if you TELL your story instead of SHOW it.

What’s the diff?

Let me illustrate:

When we go to movies the actors don’t stop in a middle of the scene, turn to the audience and say, “I’m feeling sad because when I was a little girl my mother used to pinch me,” or “I’m rearranging the cans in the cupboard because I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

We watch the movie unfold and see characters behave in a certain way, giving us clues about who they are and how they feel. We gather information by seeing their actions and listening to their dialogue. We don’t want to be told that they’re depressed, we want to watch them show us.

If we see the actor throwing dishes on the floor, shouting, and slamming doors, we’ll know he’s angry. This is SHOWING. He doesn’t have to turn to us and say, “I’m ticked off!” We get it.

Have you ever sat on a bench at the mall and watched people? (If not, you should. It’s entertaining.) There are certain things you see and hear people do and say that allow you to gather information about them. (And if you get close enough there are certain things you can SMELL, too.)

The people walking by don’t turn to you and say, “Did you notice how muddy my boots are, and that I’m wearing a flannel shirt that hasn’t been washed in a few days? I know I stink, but I’ve been hauling manure all day.” We can deduce certain facts by observing this man, even if he never opens his mouth.

Look at this guy below. What is he SHOWING us about himself in this pose? Even if he doesn’t speak to us there are certain things we can learn about him by watching him.

The same is true for your stories. If you SHOW the reader what your character is wearing, doing and saying, and how he talks and describe the Storworld around him as if he’s on the stage in front of you–including the smells and sounds, your readers will be more engaged in your story.

If you have to interrupt the story to TELL us something about him, you’ll distract our thoughts and we’ll shut your book, yawning.

(NOTE: There ARE times when TELLING is okay, but that’s for another post, another time.)

But how do you know what to pinch out with the pliers? Let me give you an example:

Is this showing or telling?

Tyler hated the way Ben was spreading nasty rumors about him. Tyler was facing Ben now, clenching his fists and considering whether he should deck him. Tyler was the type to let his anger out in a physical way, instead of bottling it up inside. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. Shoot, it was healthier.

If you guessed TELLING you were right. Here’s the showing:

Tyler shoved Ben. “Quit spreading lies about me, Dude.” He clenched his fists.  “You’re nothing but slime.” He unclenched his fists and pushed Ben again, knocking him to the ground. Tyler grinned and walked away.

Did you notice how many times the word WAS was used in the first paragraph? FIVE times. This is a passive verb which leads to a passive sentence.

It’s okay to use the word WAS occasionally, but if there are a ton of them in your story go back and rewrite the sentence using active verbs.

Here’s how YOU can be a SHOWing writer and use the pliers to pluck out your passive sentences:

  • Read through your scene and highlight the verbs of being (is, was, had, be, been, are, being) with a color. Delete them and replace the verbs with active verbs. use your thesaurus. You’ll probably have to rearrange the sentence.
  • Close your eyes and imagine you’re seeing the scene unfold on the stage. What are the characters doing? What are they saying? Show us the scene unfold. What do they see, hear, smell, and taste?
  • Try not to write the word of the emotion (anger, hurt, worried, sad, happy, etc.) Instead, try to show us their emotion through the character’s actions and dialogue. Show us what they DO when they’re sad. Don’t tell us they’re sad.
If you still need more examples don’t be discouraged. This is a difficult concept. Check out this blog: STORY SENSEI for more great examples.

Take a look at your current wip (work-in-progress). Can you give me an example of an active sentence?


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address:

Please share your random thoughts.


Thank you for stopping by!