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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Passive Voice in Creative Writing

The definition of passive voice can appear ambiguous to some, but it’s fairly simple. In passive writing, actions are alway being done to the subject or are received by the subject instead of subjects performing the action. Passive sentences  tend to be poorly constructed and long-winded. And because unnecessary words are added, it slows down the pacing. There are different ways to write sentences that carry the exact same meaning. Let me show you some examples. 
Active: Sam kicked the ball. 
The subject of the verb (Sam) directly performed an action.
Passive: The ball was kicked by Sam.
Action is performed upon or by the subject. 
Spot the difference? Both sentences tell us the same information, but the active sentences have direct approaches. Here are more examples of passive vs. active.
Active: Kids in the nearby neighborhood frequented the playground. 
Passive: The playground was mostly frequented by the kids in the nearby neighborhood. 
Active: I didn’t feel like talking. 
Passive: It was that I didn’t feel like talking.  
Active: House was near the market. 
Passive: There was a house near the market. 
There is an exception to the rule, of course. It’s justifiable when the actor (subject of an active verb) is less important than what is acted on (object), or when the actor is obvious, unknown, or unnecessary. This type of passive sentences is commonly accepted in academic/administrative writing or in journalism.
Example: The victim was found near the back entrance. 
In this case, the writer is intentionally trying to hide something from the reader, or the writer doesn’t want to reveal a piece of information until later. It could also be that the writer wants the reader to focus on the object instead of the subject.


Here are some common passive sentences that everyone use. We all like to increase word count, but these are completely useless. You can see how the pacing is greatly impacted.


Bad: It seemed to have gone the other way. Good: It went the other way.
Bad: It had been sitting there. Good: It sat there.
Bad: He could not have been waiting for more than a few minutes. Good: He only waited for a few minutes.
Bad: I began to move slowly. Good: I moved slowly.
Bad: There had not been any phone calls. Good: Nobody called.
Bad: He had had the feeling of lust which seemed to be within him. Good: He was horny.
In creative writing, a writer must engage the reader with every page. When the writing is active, it appear more energetic and powerful. When it's passive? Well....it'll make you stabby. Go back and read your MS. What is the ratio? Do you have more passive sentences than active sentences? Do you have more telling than showing? It’s probably a good idea to rethink your writing style. Delete the passive voice and bring the oomph back to your MS. 

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18 comments:

  1. This is something I always try to watch out for.
    Make it active and feel the force.

    Times when I resort to 'was' is when the MC is pondering a question.
    i.e. Was she expecting him to reply?
    I could rephrase and use - Did she expect him to reply?

    Great Post

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  2. Since I write Fantasy I create worlds thus I am the boss. Every now and then my writing says "you're not the boss of me" so I have to smite them with the might of the legendary Active voice :)

    Thanks for post - you can never hear this enough as a writer

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  3. I understand passive voice. What I don't understand is subject/object of a sentence. Verbs I get. If I was ever taught about subject/object of a sentence it was so far back in the mists of time and so briefly I have since forgotten it. The problem with this is I instinctively recognise passive voice instead of being able to analyse a sentence as passive because of the subject/object structure.

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  4. I've always been confused about sentences like "Doug had his ipod stolen last night."

    Technically, isn't that passive, with the active being, "Some lowlife stole Doug's ipod last night."

    The problem seems that unless you either want your prose 'slangy' and use "Some lowlife" or 'technical' and use "An unknown person" you almost have to use the passive there. Right?

    And then there are things like, "Doug got his ipod repaired once before." Here the acting agent is indeed known, but it's so insignificant that it would look funny if you wrote, "A guy in a repair shop repaired Doug's ipod once before."

    Perhaps we need a part 2 to this article?


    Oh, and if you are writing dialogue for a corporate executive or politician...USE THE PASSIVE. They are going to say "Mistakes were made." instead of "I screwed up." :D

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  5. Actually, I want to clarify something quick. I know you said, "There is an exception to the rule, of course. It’s justifiable when the actor (subject of an active verb) is less important than what is acted on (object), or when the actor is obvious, unknown, or unnecessary." but I wanted to point out that in creative writing, sometimes it's necessary as well. Not just academic etc.

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  6. Michael.

    1. You can say "Doug's ipod was stolen." That is almost identical to the examples I listed as "acceptable."

    2. Why don't you write "Doug took his broken iPod to the repair shop."? This is an active sentence and is self-explanatory. We know what will happen at the repair shop. It will be repaired!

    Thanks for your comment though:P

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  7. Oh, yeah. I do have to clarify. When I write a post about passive writing, adverbs in dialogue tags, prologue...whatever. I am not ruling them out 100%. I'm just defining it and showing the bad examples of it. There is no black and white in creative writing. Some of the things that are frowned upon can be used. But use them wisely and not too often. I think that is my point. Thanks all~

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  8. I believe we are suffering from a 'Passive Voice bad, Active Voice good' complex, brought on by believing the lecturer in Creative Writing 101.

    Passive can also be good - just give a minute or two to think of some examples...

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  9. Now here is one. [Note: it used to be that WORD Spellchecker flagged almost every 'was' as a possible passive sentence - at least that has stopped now].

    Anyway, I trolled through my The Prince and the Nun with Spellchecker and (wouldn't you believe it?) the first passive sentence it threw up was in questionable taste. Never mind, here it is because it is a good example. It come from a letter written by one lady to another:

    After an afternoon with him I am exhausted; my knees are shaking, and minette is stretched and tingles as I walk.

    The Good Lord (who, of course, invented the English language and uses it at home himself) provided us with the passive voice for a good reason - to provide colour to our writing. Our job is to distinguish when it adds that colour, and when it is simply obfuscation. That is the difficult bit.

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  10. Great post - always good to be reminded. Cheers!

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  11. Jacqueline, thanks for your comment. I must disagree that we're suffering from that complex. Passive writing makes a book read like a boring newspaper article. We're talking about creative writing. Fiction. We have to make it engaging to the readers. Otherwise, what's the point? It beats the purpose of me writing posts like this one.

    That said, you're right about having a good mix. I did mention that in the previous comment. You can't make it 100% active or 100% showing. A little bit passive/telling can add to the flavor. General rule: avoid passive writing as much as possible.

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  12. I'm very afraid to look at my work. I will, but it might take a shot or two. CHEERS! *clink*

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  13. Great points, Su. Passive is sometimes used to change the flow or the make a smooth transition but it shouldn't be use often.

    I learn so much from you writing advice!

    Thank you.

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  14. I was one of the people requesting this blog topic ;-) Thanks! After reading a few stories this past year written in the passive voice - I have to say, especially in the horror genre - you can't afford to write too passive. Something that is supposed to be exciting or scary winds up incredibly dull. Frequently I encountered passive and telling together. One recent example: "He could see that the light was off." ...

    Are you kidding me?

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  15. Haha. Every time I read one of your blogs, I think I should go and sit in the corner. That's a good thing, in a weird way. :)

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  16. Isn't active voice when you remove the passive word "was" entirely too? That's what I strive to do in my revisions--delete that most of the "to be" words and replace them with stronger verbs.

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  17. Sherry, Yes - and no. If you are not careful, you will change He was waiting for her i.e. the continuous past tense, into He waited for her. Fine, if that's what you want to do, but the two sentences have different meanings.

    And then there is It was raining. Direct statements like that will always have a place in my writing.

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  18. Excellent post and great comments too.

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