Are You Sabotaging Your Story?–Part 2

This second post deals with Passive Narration
by Catherine E. McLean

As I mentioned in part one (posted earlier today), two major factors turned me off finding an e-book to download: overuse of was and were and passive narration. So, let’s address passive narration, more specifically, the lack of clarity. After all, clarity is paramount if the reader is to stay immersed in a story world.

I’m sure you’ve been told countless times that a reader must never be taken out of the story world. Yet, most writers are not aware of how they sabotage their stories because they can’t recognize the passivity which dulls clarity.

Well, I know a simple way to check for one of the most prevailing aspects of passive “telling” narration. Want to try it yourself and see how you fare? If you do, go back and complete the “was” challenge mentioned in part one of today’s blog and also do the same exercise for “were.” Then take those hard copy, highlighted pages–corrected to include the additional wases and weres your computer found–and use a different color of highlighter. Look for ING ending words that IMMEDIATELY FOLLOW a was or were. Highlight those ING verb-phrases. Example: was going, was thinking, was feeling, were taking, were deciding.

Each coupling is a red flag waving in earnest that what’s written is likely a passive “telling” sentence that dulls clarity.

But first, count how many couplings you have and figure out the ratio. Again, such numbers give you a starting place so you can self-edit and reduce the number of occurrences. Your reader will appreciate that, and you’ll grow as a writer and, more importantly, as a storyteller.

Okay, you already knew from the peppering of your pages with was and were that you overused those two words, but now you can SEE, actually see, another aspect of their use–“telling.” Yep, telling instead of showing.

Active voice and active verbs “show” by causing an instant image to appear in the reader’s mind. One of my favorite passively narrated sentences is: Jack and Jill were going up the hill. Obviously this is omniscient “telling” by an invisible someone (the author) who is watching Jack and Jill go up that hill and “reporting” what’s happening.

Most writers will opt for the simplest switch-out and substitute the active verb “went” for “were going” but does “went” conjure a clear, instant image? No. So, what’s needed is a verb that paints a picture in the reader’s mind of how Jack and Jill went up that hill. How about: walked, trudged, or jogged? Each clarifies the image, however, a good storyteller will pick an image-provoking word that is the exact fit. Only as you can also see, those fixes are still omniscient “telling” that “reports” what’s happening (but at least there is clarity and more vivid imagery).

So, what happened when you checked your pages for WAS-INGs? Did you also find “was” or “were” coupled with another helping verb like was bitten, were captured, was delighted, were aghast, etc.? Such couplings are also indicators of passive narration because they provoke no vivid imagery. The phrases even border on verbosity. (Remember the adage: never use two words when one precise one will do.)

Are you up for another challenge? If so, with a different colored highlighter then what you used on the pages you already have, mark every verb and verb phrase that IS NOT ALREADY MARKED. How many of those verbs fail to create an instant and clear image for the reader?

Habits are hard to break and overuse of was, were, and those ING passive constructions will require effort. One way you can help yourself stop the abuse is to create your own “Red Flag Word” Cheat Sheet–a master list of what you need to check for when you self-edit. Once you have a master list, you copy it when you do a rewrite or revision. You systematically check for each item (one at a time because no one can catch everything all at once), then cross it off the list. Eventually, you’ll write fewer and fewer instances of “was,” “were,” and “was-ings.”

Please share your challenge findings and, if you have any questions, or want more clarification, let me know.

Catherine McLean
Craft enhances talent.

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10 responses to “Are You Sabotaging Your Story?–Part 2

  1. I actually had no passive voice in my section, only two ing verbs total and none paired with a was or were. This is not surprising, though, since it’s something i tackled a few years ago and now rarely have to fix

  2. Sarah–

    That’s splendid! Thanks for doing the exercise and sharing your findings.


  3. I am with Sarah. I had two instances of were but neither were (hah, I used, “were”) followed with an -ing word. Yay! I, too, tackled this a little while back, and I’m estatic to see that it worked.

    I’m going back now to tackle the second part, looking at all my other verbs to se what image they create.

    Thanks Catherine for these wonderful exercises!

  4. Very little announces a writer’s lack of experience as clearly as the use of passive voice. It’s one of the top no-no’s that slush-pile readers look for when gleaning through submissions.

    Great post!

  5. Hi,
    Great post! Was’s are very easy to slip back into. Like you, I have also found lots of them in the ebook world. Loved the Jack and Jill example. Simple but an excellent way to express your point.

  6. Thank you, Kathy.


  7. I’d been Catherine-ized quite a few years ago with the was/were/ing thing (and TRY to avoid it when I can. I do tend to catch them now when writing, though I find they slip out more often in something like a blog post. The thing I loved about the Jack and Jill example, is that the whole concept and reason for them going up the hill, the whole theme of the piece, can be altered and enhanced by clarifying those words. Jack and Jill ran up the hill. Jack and Jill snuck up the hill. JJ wandered up the hill… A simple richness begins to color Jack and Jill’s world as the passive voice is removed.

  8. Well said, Jamie!


  9. ‘Catherinized’ is a wonderful word–I do my best to remain Catherinized, myself.

    Wonderful posts…I shared them on another forum and they were much appreciated!

  10. Catherinized? You too? :))

    Thanks for coining the word Jamie, and thanks, Ash, for brightening my day!


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