Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part III. Grammar Rules Every Writer Needs to Know and Follow

Chapter 12. Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

You might remember this one from your high school or college English class days. I suspect that most of us at one point received an essay back with the comment “You used too much passive voice” accompanied by a lot of red circles.

Unfortunately, most of the time, these instructors forgot to explain to us what, exactly, a passive sentence was and why it was such a bad thing. My guess is they assumed we already knew.

If what I’ve seen in my editing work is any indication, many writers don’t.

So let me explain to you what we mean when we talk about active vs. passive voice and why we should avoid it.

WHAT IS PASSIVE VOICE VS. ACTIVE VOICE?

Remember that the subject of a verb is the one who is doing or taking on the action of the verb.

When we use the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing an action, or doing something to someone/something else.

When we use the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of an action.

This is easier to see through examples. I’ll put the subject of the sentences in bold.

PassiveThey were told by the lifeguard that the pool was closed.

Active: The lifeguard told them that the pool was closed.

They are the subject in the passive sentence, but they’re not doing anything. They’re passive. They’re being acted upon.

Passive: The missing boy was located, cold and shivering, by the dauntless rescue team.

Active: The dauntless rescue team located the cold, shivering missing boy.

The missing boy is the subject of the passive sentence, but he’s not doing anything. Something is being done to him.

Fixing a use of passive voice might sound difficult, but it’s actually pretty simple. Just make sure that the subject of the sentence (the noun that comes before the verb) is the one doing something. You’ll know you’re on the right track here if the verb is a single action verb that doesn’t use any helping verbs (e.g., was or were).

WHY IS PASSIVE VOICE A PROBLEM?

Reason #1 - Compared to active voice, passive voice is wordy.

The tighter our writing, the faster it feels like the story is moving. It’s a subliminal trick, but it works.

Beyond this, when we’re writing, we often have word count limits placed on us. If we know that the typical romantic suspense novel is 75,000 to 80,000 words, we want to use those words on things that move the story forward and give the reader the best possible experience. We don’t want to waste them writing something in eleven words when nine would do.

Passive: The plant-closing notice was tacked on the bulletin board by Frank.

Active: Frank tacked the plant-closing notice on the bulletin board.

Reason #2 – Passive voice feels awkward because it reverses the way people naturally think about things.

If you were thinking about the car that ran your spouse off the road, you wouldn’t normally say…

Jack was almost run off the road by that idiot.

You’d more naturally say…

That idiot almost ran Jack off the road.

You wouldn’t think…

My clothes were shredded by the cat.

You’d think…

The cat shredded my clothes.

You wouldn’t think…

A dead frog was left in front of my door by my landlord.

You’d probably think…

My landlord left a dead frog in front of my door.

Human beings tend to think first about the thing acting rather than about the thing being acted on.

Reason #3 – The reader can get confused by the delay in naming the actor.

Let’s go back to our sentence about the dead frog.

The dead frog was left in front of my door by the next-door neighbor that wants to get rid of me.

The dead frog was left in front of my door by my landlord.

We don’t find out who put the dead frog in front of the door until the end of the sentence. That gives the reader time to make an assumption and be wrong, especially if the actor will be someone they didn’t expect.

Reason #4 – Active voice makes the reader feel more like they’re experiencing the action along with the character.

You can see this one best if we look at an example.

Passive: The giant boulder was rolled in front of the cave entrance by Frank.

You’re separated from Frank. This sentence feels distant and disconnected.

Active: Frank rolled the giant bolder in front of the cave entrance.

With the active version, it feels more like we’re watching it happen in front of us rather than being told about it secondhand. We’re there with Frank.

SHOULD WE EVER USE PASSIVE VOICE?

I’m glad you asked, because the answer is yes.

If you don’t know who the subject (the actor) is, you’ll have to use the passive voice.

Example: Our car was set on fire.

You might (notice I said might) also want to use the passive voice if the person who did the action is less important than the action itself. This is an option we have, but we still need to use it wisely and sparingly.