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Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 2

Updated on October 13, 2011

Editing Pencils

Many colors for many issues.
Many colors for many issues.

"An Act without an Actor"

(Note: If you haven't read my hub, Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 1, I recommend you do so before continuing with this one.)

Writers often create sentences in which something happens, but it happens out of thin air—no character actually does it. An act occurs, but no actor commits the act.

Example: "A stone skipped across the pond."

Presto! It must be magic! Nah, it's just poor writing—usually. On rare occasions—very rare—you may want to show action without revealing the actor, as a tool for building temporary suspense.

Example: "The door suddenly slammed behind him!"

However, the vast majority of this type of Passive Voice sentence occurs not to build suspense, but because the writer fails to commit to that which matters most—his characters' actions. As I said in my previous hub, readers invest themselves in your characters and in their actions, not in actions that happen as if out of thin air. Without a character to invest in, readers lose interest (exception: Setting descriptions).

Will readers put down your story because you gave them one poor sentence? Of course not. However, if you dump too many meaningless acts into your piece—meaning things keep happening, but nobody does anything—they'll bail out on you.

Readers rarely care for this: "A stone skipped across the pond." They want to know who's doing the skipping: "Susie skipped a stone across the pond."

Readers care about people—your characters—and they care about actions only to the extent that characters commit them, or to the extent that those acts affect the characters.

I will now illustrate further through a series of specific examples I've seen in pieces I've edited. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors' names and story titles, to protect the not-so-innocent. [Insert chuckle here.]

BAD: The words were not spoken so much as a command as a gentle prodding, an understanding and empathy that gave Bill strength.

(Note: We see here no actor, just an act. If you've mentioned the character's name in a previous sentence, and you haven't changed subjects, use a simple pronoun—he, she, etc.—to clarify the action. Otherwise, provide the acting character's name.)

GOOD: Bill did not speak the words as a command so much as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy that gave John strength.

BETTER: Bill offered the words not as a command, but as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy to give John strength.

BAD:The wound had been made, and now the men could not be placated by my yielding. Without John willing to throw himself into the fray, I would surely be struck down by their numbers. As detestable as it seemed, my only recourse was undeniable: I would have to break through their lines and flee.

(Note: First, we have the act without an actor. Second, we have subject/sbject reversals.)

GOOD: I'd already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding. If John didn’t throw himself into the fray, I would surely fall to their numbers. My only recourse, though detestable, was undeniable: break through their lines and flee.

BETTER: I'd already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding. I needed John to throw himself into the fray, or I would surely fall to such a large group of soldiers. Although I detested my only recourse, I had no choice: I must break through their lines and flee.

(Note: Why is this better? Well, this is a first-person narrative, and we are now strongly in the narrator-character's POV—his emotional state—with this BETTER alternative.)

BAD: The petition was met with indignant silence.

(Note: As readers, we can only assume that someone did the meeting. Please be specific and direct.)

GOOD: The captain responded to the petition with indignant silence.

BAD: A second, more urgent message bypassed the captain's ranking officers to appear on his main screen.

(Note: Three cheers for that very talented message! [Insert chuckle here.] The inert object, "urgent message," cannot act on its own. We need a subject here.)

GOOD: The passengers bypassed the captain's ranking officers and sent a second, more urgent message directly to his main screen.

BAD: The lodge was kept ready for ceremonies, advisers and visitors when the gatherings came to their camp.

(Note: Who did the keeping?)

GOOD: The Counsel Elders kept the lodge for ceremonies, advisors, and visitors when the gatherings came to their camp.

BETTER: The Counsel Elders kept the lodge for ceremonies, advisors, and visitors.

In closing, let me remind you—because I just can't seem to say it enough—to make these your watchwords: Keep it strong and direct!

'Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn't be lazy.

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