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You have probably heard often that you need to avoid passive voice and replace it with active voice. Two simple steps turn a weak sentence into a good sentence.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.

This is very true, however, it is only one step in improving a single sentence in your story. Is a “good sentence” good enough for you? I don’t think so. You want your sentence to grab the reader. You want strong sentences. Turning passive voice into a strong sentence can be done adding one more additional steps.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Change it to active voice.
  3. Paint the active voice sentence.

However, you may find your active voice sentence hard to paint–your active voice sentence may be a bad canvas. Maybe you used the wrong active voice sentence. Let’s alter step 2 and three slightly. This also gives us a simple step 4.

  1. Locate a passive voice sentence.
  2. Write two or three replacement active voice sentences.
  3. Paint the active voice sentences or replace them.
  4. Use the strongest sentence.

Now it is time for an example.

Example 1

The first step is, of course, to locate a passive voice sentence. Here is one I found in my writing. Cringe…

I was tired and sleepy.

The second step is to make it active voice, but try a few examples. Here are two ways to actively say the above sentence.

I felt tired and sleepy.
Feeling tired, sleepiness overwhelmed me.

These sentence are better than the passive voice sentences, but not as much better as you might think. You might notice that both the above sentences have moved from passive voice to active voice but are still examples of telling, not showing.

The third step is to paint a picture with these sentences.

  • Identify the person: I (Point of view character)
  • Identify the action: felt
  • Identify the emotion/feeling: tired and sleepy

Now ask some questions.

  • What part of the POV character’s body/face does he/she use to demonstrate the emotion/feeling tired and sleepy?
  • Why does the POV character feel that way?
  • What action does that part of the body do?
  • Ask yourself if that action paints the picture of the original sentence.

OK, lets write some painted sentences.

My eyelids dropped and I forced them back open, hoping for just a few more minutes.

My eyelids weighed down and my lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

As I look at the above sentences, I like the painting in the first sentence best but I like the second sentence because there are two body parts showing emotion/feeling tired and sleepy. I also liked the idea of heavy eyelids. Well, I’m the writer so I’m going to merge them.

My heavy eyelids dropped involuntarily until I forced them back open. My lower back complained as I asked it to ache for a few minutes longer.

I won’t claim this is the best sentence–actually two sentences–for replacing “I was tired” but the sentences are strong sentences. They definitely paint the picture. The reader will see the character’s eyes drop, feel the ache in his/her back as her/she continues to do whatever it is he/she has been doing for too long.

Now go forth and paint away passive voice yourself.

Exercise

Try it on your own. Here is a sentence.

I was running hard.

Please post your painted active voice sentence.