Being a Better Writer: Active and Passive Voice

All right! Request time! Today’s topic came from in a message from a reader, who expressed concern that some of their works had quite a bit of passive voice over active voice, and wanted to change that. So they were hoping I could offer a little advice on the matter.

I can, though it might not be the advice they expect.

Right, first of all (we’re diving right into this), let’s talk a little bit about what passive and active voice are, since this one seems to confuse a lot of people. In actuality, passive versus active is based on a pretty simple concept: Where is the subject of the sentence? If it comes first, establishing the subject (and, to an extent, some context), then the sentence is active. If it comes second, after an action or event, then the sentence is passive.

Still confused? Here’s an example:

Mike slammed the door shut, shaking the car.

Active.

The car shook from the impact of the door as Mike pulled it closed.

Passive.

See the difference? In the first, active sentence, Mike is the subject, he is the primary focus of the sentence. He slams the door shut, and that shakes the car.

In the passive example, however, the car shakes, then we get to the why, and then the who (and yes, I’m aware that the passive sentence is a little awkward; it’s because it’s both passive and because I inverted the prior sentence on the spot). The order is flipped. We find out what happens before knowing who did it or how. The result is a passive read.

Now, you can see some more examples of this kind of thing here if you’re looking to read a little more on active versus passive sentence structure. Active versus passive is a fairly straightforward concept, after all, so I don’t feel the need to go over it in much more detail—at least, not the mechanics of it. As long as you think to yourself “Who does what?” while you write, you’ll probably find you’re doing all right when it comes to keeping your sentences active.

But now for the big question: do you want to?

Actually, before I answer that, let’s take a quick step back and ask another question. Why is it that so many people have problems with active and passive when they first set out to write?

I have a theory. As the Purdue Owl site I linked above points out, “Active voice is used for most non-scientific writing.” As in fiction. And when most of us are in grade school, at least in the U.S., what do we read most of the time in school? Non-fiction. Textbooks. Newspapers. Reports. Stuff that doesn’t concern itself with telling an exciting story as long as it has your peripheral attention.

Fiction is different, though. Fiction needs to have active writing. Fiction needs to be clear and gripping. But if a lot of aspiring writers haven’t read much fiction … they aren’t aware of the conventional differences, even on a subconscious level, and they may resort to passive voice. Or the only English writing they’ve ever done has been passive. Anyway, the point is, if you don’t experience much in the way of active voice, you won’t have as good a grasp of how to write it when the time comes.

Another plug to always be reading and keep the mind sharp, as you might guess. Plus, being well read will keep you from making othermistakes as well (and there are plenty out there). If you want to write, read good books.

So, off of theories on why people tend to start with passive rather than active voice, let’s tackle that question I threw up earlier: do you want to always write in active voice?

To that, I say no, not always.

Bear in mind, I am referring to fiction here. And again, I’ll say it: you don’t always want to be using active voice.

I can hear some confusion from here. Time to explain. Look, going back to our examples above (or even other examples that can be found on the web), what can we notice about active and passive voice?

Well, for starters, active voice is shorter. It’s more direct. It’s more energetic. It’s quick and clean, cuts right to the heart of things. Subject, action. Bam.

Now look at passive. Passive is longer. More words are needed to cover the same amount of information due to the structure. It’s less direct. Less energetic—one could almost say downright lethargic in some cases. It can often be a bit more prose (or purple, if you prefer). Action, subject.

Now, look at both of those and think about it for a moment. Can you see a purpose for both in your writing? Or just the one?

Hopefully, you said both, because that’s the angle I’d go with. Like show versus tell, active versus passive is a balance, not an end all. Each has a place in a story.

Now, by default? You’re going to want to use a lot more active than passive in your works. It’s snappy. It’s quick. It’s direct. Especially if you’re writing an action scene or something that needs to be tense … You can’t do that with a passive voice. You need to have the reader gripped into the action.

But what about passive? Where would you make use of that?

Well, what about the moments that aren’t tense? The down periods? When pacing calls for things to be more laid back? A little bit of passive voice (not too much, don’t overdo it) can be a good help in winding a reader down, getting them to relax. Passive voice is, well, passive. As we said above, there’s less energy to it. Less urgency. Careful use of passive here and there can help drive home a relaxed environment.

Passive can have other uses as well. It lends itself more easily to purple prose. I’ve found it’s particularly useful when used from a perspective to drive home a character’s current state. If they’re groggy or slightly out of connection with things, the use of passive voice for their observations can help drive that mental state home. Or maybe you’re writing a character who isn’t 100% there, or has a tendency to ramble on and one. Passive voice can aide there as well.

The point of all this is that passive voice isn’t completely useless to your fiction writing, though again I will stress that most of the time you’re going to want to stay fairly active. The balance, of course, is up to you and may take practice. That’s okay. Practice is how we get better.

If you feel that you’re struggling with active versus passive at the moment, try focusing on one or the other (preferably active) and then, when you’re familiar with what you’re doing, let the passive slip in where needed. Which, again, won’t be often.

So. Active sentences? Subject, then action. Direct and energetic. Passive? Action, then subject. More roundabout, and more lethargic. Figuring out where to use one or the other? That part is up to you.

Just remember, in fiction you will want active most of the time.

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