Nobody likes a Passive Hero

This article represented a colossal mistake on my part, and now I am fixing the mistake. Gooshy tomatoes are available at the end of the article for tossing at me for my failure.

Was + verb does not automatically count as a passive voice sentence. Dive in and let me explain what passive voice really is. Why you still should avoid ‘was’. And when you want to use the dreaded passive voice.

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets. I was looking for trouble and didn’t have to look too hard. I saw a mugging in progress. One of the thugs saw me and soon bullets were whizzing past my head.

Sounds exciting, right? So why are my eyelids drooping and my hand tossing the book on the floor? Take another look at our hero. He doesn’t do anything. Stuff happens around him. Try this version.

The city slept, her snoring kept me awake. Foetid air rose from grates as the subway passed. I grew up on these streets. I know the sounds they make, also when the space between the sounds means trouble. Some sap was making a gift of his wallet and gold watch to a pair of thugs. I stayed on my side of the street. The sap looked like he could afford a donation. Then the gun came out. Who pulls a gun after they mug someone? I pulled my own gun-not as big, but I knew exactly how to use it. Thug one took a bead on me, so I hit the pavement. The bullets made sure some body shop would be working overtime. I checked the window to get a location on Thug One. Our eyes met, his beady ones with my tired peepers. I shot out the window and the alarm shrieked. Funny how shots got my juices flowing, but alarms just gave me headaches. Thug Two showed up on my side of the street. He had me cold, so I followed my bullets through the window. I felt the brush of death as a bullet tugged at my coat. I kept going deeper into the store. Maybe I’d find a back door.

Now the second paragraph is longer. It usually takes more words to show the action than to tell about it. The advantage is that all those words do double duty. The action holds the reader’s attention, but they are also learning about the character of the hero.  A lot of the time the writer knows exactly what the story is about. They tell us the story and when you tell the story it is easy to slip into passive voice. It becomes about what happens to the character instead of what the character does. You do need things to happen to the character, but if you can attach those actions to something or someone it will be a stronger story.

The form of the verb ‘to be’ with a gerund after it creates a static situation. This is happening and continues to happen. There is no change. You want your characters to be actively shaping the world around them. Action is one of the triumvirate that reveals character. If you write with ‘was’ too often, you are muzzling your character. It will distance the character from the reader. It feels like the character is being moved instead of moving themselves.

Another problem with gerunds is that we try to load too many of them into a sentence.

Standing, wiggling his eyebrows and juggling watermelons, Bozo the clown waited his turn to pay for his groceries.

Poor Bozo is standing, wiggling, juggling and waiting all at once. That’s impressive, but we don’t learn much about Bozo from all that. The standing, wiggling and juggling aren’t really part of the action. It’s hard to imagine him doing all that simultaneously. Let’s get active and see what happens.

Bozo stood in line at the grocery check out. The child in the cart ahead of him looked very cranky so Bozo wiggled his eyebrows. Was that a smile? He picked up the two tiny watermelons and a squash. He started to juggle them. Everything went well until the child’s mother turned, saw Bozo and let out a piercing shriek. The child clapped its hands and laughed.

The two sentences give the same information, but the second one pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re a part of the action. Each of the verbs has it’s own object and subject. The gerund as an extra sneaky helping of verb is really one useful if the actions are all happening at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” Bozo said, wiping watermelon juice from his eyes, “It must be hard to be a coulrophobic,”

I can see him talking while he is wiping juice from his face. Using too many gerunds is another way of telling rather than showing the action. Try to give each action its own sentence. It will help to keep things straight and the reader will be able to follow the story better.

The goal of the writer is to entice the reader to enter the story’s world. That requires active characters who participate fully in the story. There are so many good words to use, so many interesting verbs. Let’s put them to work.

But ‘was + verbing’ is not passive. I made a mistake in the original article and am finally getting around to fixing the problem. My apologies.

Now on to when you do want to use the was + verbing. This construction is for when action is interrupted. I was walking down the street when the shooting started. The sentence begins with one action and ends with another. The other use for was + verbing is for action which continues through a scene. The birds were chirping in the woods. It made the place sound much too cheerful for a murder scene.

The passive voice is when things are being done to the subject of the sentence instead of the subject acting. Sound confusing? Yup, guess why I goofed up. A great many writers (and readers) think that any construction with ‘was’ is in passive voice.

But the first sentence in my example:

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets.

is not passive voice. The city is acting, I am walking. Boring, yes, passive, no.

Try this one

The city streets were walked by hordes of zombie clowns.

That is passive voice. The city is not acting. It is being acted upon by the horde of zombie clowns.

This sentence gives us the simplest test of whether your sentence is passive or active voice. Believe it or not it is called the zombie test. (Google it, I did not make it up.) Very simply you add ‘by zombies’ after your sentence. If the sentence makes sense, you are writing in passive voice. If it doesn’t it is not.

The city was sleeping by zombies. Does not make sense, thus not passive voice.

So, when do you want to use passive voice? Because if it were truly the ultimate evil in language, we wouldn’t have it.

You use passive when the object of the action is more important than the subject. In the passive voice example above, the hordes of zombie clowns is more interesting and probably more important to the story than the city streets. You want passive voice here.

When you are using a character as the passive subject it is trickier. Your character is important. Most of the time you want them acting, not sitting passively around being acted upon. Where passive voice comes in useful is to accentuate situations when your character, for whatever reason, is unable to act. They are tied up, unconscious, dead or whatever.

So there you have it folks, the real goods on passive voice.

Ready for your close-up?

Jim Bondo rolled under the table with his gun. He always had his gun handy for situations just like this one. He squeezed the trigger and a carefully controlled stream of glue was forced into the space between the loose leg and the rest of the old wooden table. He knew Sara loved this table and fixing it was the best chance he had of repairing their relationship which was a wonky as this leg.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table with a clatter that made Jim’s head ache.

“Fixing your table,” Jim said.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. It stung a bit too.

He sat up too quickly and smacked his head. He heard a laugh which either meant Sarah had been possessed or there was a man in the room. His one remaining eye saw a pair of size twelve cowboy boots.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears ran down one side of his face, while they built up behind the sealed eyelid forcing it to bulge out painfully. He crawled out knocking the keys to the floor. He gathered what things he wanted. He walked out with a bag over his shoulder and the sight of Sarah and Bubba necking on the couch burned into his brain. He dropped his key as  he closed the door behind him, he heard the table crash to the floor along with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

Jim swung up his gun. Even one-eyed he could deal with this. He squeezed the trigger and glue gushed into the crack all around the door. He figured they wouldn’t find it until they got hungry. Plenty of time for it to set.


Poor Jim, the reader has to feel sorry for him, getting dumped like that. The problem is that likely the reader doesn’t. There are a couple of decent images, but most of it feels narrated. It is describing Jim doing things, fixing the table, banging his head etc. There are fifteen pronouns starting sentences or clauses, four filter verbs and one passive voice. If you were writing a movie, this would be good, as we get the visual part of the scene.

Only we aren’t writing a movie, we are working with a book or a story. One advantage print has over the silver screen is we can get into the character and show their feelings. This scene is written in wide angle. We’ve pulled back from Jim and we’re watching him act.

What would it look like if we pulled in tighter and got into his head?


Trusty gun in hand, Jim Bondo rolled under the table, ready as always for this kind of situation. A gentle squeeze of the trigger sent a thin stream of glue into the space between the wonky leg and the rest of the table. Sarah loved the ricketty old thing. Pain skewered his heart. Truth was, fixing her table might be his last chance to repair their relationship. After a deep breath to steady his hand, he added another layer of glue to the first. Slow and steady, build it up in layers.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table; the clatter spiked into his temples.

“Fixing your table.” Another breathe, another layer and done.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. Damn it stung. The smack of his head against the table as he sat up added stars to headache and burning eye. Still didn’t hurt worse than the twist in his gut.

A bass laugh meant she’d been possessed or another man was in the room. Blurry size twelve cowboy boots said man. Not that she wouldn’t sell her soul for the right price – one far beyond his ability to pay.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear, and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears burned one eye and cheek. The glued eyelid dammed the tears forcing the eyelid to bulge out. The gun clicked into its holster. The table tilted as his back scraped against the top. Keys slid to the floor. The garbage bag crinkled and stretched, but held everything it needed to.

The weight of the bag magnified the stone crushing his chest. Bubba had his hand up Sarah’s blouse as she sucked on his lips. Like I need to see that.  The key dropped from his hand as he pushed the door open.  As it closed behind the table crashed to the floor with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

The stone in his chest caught fire. Only need one eye for this. No gentle squeeze of the trigger this time. Glue gushed out of the gun to fill the crack around the door. They wouldn’t find it until hunger distracted them.

Plenty of time for the glue to set.


The first thing you’ll notice is that I haven’t got rid of all the pronouns. Some of them I shifted into first personal to make direct thought, and there are pronouns for Sarah and Bubba. The goal is not the eradication of all pronouns, but to write closer to the character. If you need a pronoun to avoid a clunky sentence, go ahead and use it.

The other thing is the action is only part of what is going on.  We read a lot more about what is happening inside Jim. I’m a firm believer that the less you name emotion, the more evocative it becomes, but that may be a subject for another article.

Lastly, the goal is to be so close to Jim we feel what he feels, no standing back to watch the action unfold. There is no narrative voice here.

The truth is writing this way is a lot more work than writing the first version. It takes a lot of concentration and attention to nuance (another article too). You don’t want to write your whole book this way. My experience as an editor and reviewer is just when an author needs to pull in tighter, they step back. The multiple pronoun starts and the rest are warning signs – here is where you need to decide how key the scene is to your story.

There are times you need a good bit of narrative summary, and others when you want to get close enough to hear a heart break and feel the heat of revenge’s flame.