In the interest of not letting another year or more go by between “Passive Search” posts let’s add this little gem to “Something Was Verbing” and “He Could See.” This one I think we’ll be able to lob up and bat out of your writing quickly. It’s what I like to call “the Thing of Someone” and I’ve seen it a lot, not just lately, but over the length of my career as an editor. And let’s face it, I’ve probably fallen into this trap as a writer, too.

I run across this most often in fantasy and historical fiction, and it might stem from an effort, conscious or otherwise, on the part of the author to try to affect a certain archaic or “old timey” voice. But if you’re going to do that you have to either do it all the way, as Susanna Clarke did in her monumentally fantastic Dr. Strange & Mr. Norrell, or just don’t do it at all. If you are going to follow Ms. Clarke down that rabbit hole, choose your time period and voice wisely, do the same high level of research she did, and for God’s sake alert your editor ahead of time!

But for the rest of us, this is the danger sign we’re looking for:

Galen reached up out of the grave and grabbed the ankle of Bronwyn.

I have to ask, and this for my fellow Americans, at least: When was the last time you said anything like this? Not that you reached out of a grave, of course, but identified any noun as the [thing] of [someone]: the car of Dave, the Xbox of Andrea, the suitcase of Evelyn . . . ?

We just don’t talk like that, so when it shows up in description it feels . . . not wrong, per se, but somehow . . . out of place.

All this passive voice stuff goes back to the concept of emotional distance. You always want to do everything you can to shorten, if not eliminate, the emotional distance between your characters and your readers. But this sort of sentence structure will, however momentarily, drop your readers out of the story to reveal the writing. And though most if not all of your readers will never be able to clearly articulate that this sentence structure dropped them out of the story, adding all those moments together will serve to lessen or even sever your readers’ connection to the characters and the story.

How to fix this?

Couldn’t be easier, actually:

Galen reached up out of the grave and grabbed Bronwyn’s ankle.


Unfortunately, though, this can be a tough one to find using your computer’s search function. What do you look for, every instance of the word of? That might take a while.

Still, if you’re reading this thinking, Uh oh, I do that, or even Hm, do I do that? it’ll be worth that exercise just to find out. Even if you only find one instance of the thing of someone and fix in a few seconds what it might have taken you half an hour to find in the full text of a novel, well . . . I think it’s worth it.

But then, of course, if “the thing of someone” shows up in dialog, all bets are off.

I asked you if you ever actually say things like “the suitcase of Evelyn,” and I’m willing to bet you don’t, but one or more of your characters might. Generally speaking, all these “rules” are both made to be broken or at least bent, and apply only to description.

Okay? Now, go give the work-in-progress of you another active search!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. So I didn’t quite understand this when I read the article, but as soon as I started editing today, I found it almost immediately. Suddenly “The thing of someone” made sense. Thank you so much.

  2. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…10/10/16 – Where Genres Collide

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