Creative Writing: Active Versus Passive Voice
Beginning creative writers, repeat after me: Active voice, good. Passive voice, bad. Active voice, contract. Passive voice, rejection slip.
Are you with me?
Now that you know 90% of the secret to turning an editor into your greatest ally in the publishing world, only one question remains - how the heck do you tell the difference?
In passive voice, the former object of a sentence becomes the subject. This can slow down the pace of your story, confuse the reader, and - trust me on this - cause an editor to toss your literary masterpiece straight into the nearest garbage can. It's a sure-fire way to end your writing career and end your literary dreams.
Observe how awkward passive writing looks and sounds:
The ball was fetched by the dog. (Seven words.)
The apple juice was bought by the girl. (Eight words.)
The witness was talked to by the police. (Eight words.)
Grandma was danced with by Peter. (Six words.)
Notice how awkward these sentences are? That's because the subjects (the ball, the apple juice, the witness, grandma) are not actively doing anything - they're just sitting there twiddling their little thumbs while the objects (the dog, the girl, the police, Peter) perform.
Active voice is more than just a stylistic choice - it tightens your prose, puts the focus on the proper subject of each sentence, and helps your story move along at a quicker pace (which is exactly what editors and readers want). In active voice, the subject acts on the object.
You may recall this simple subject-verb-object structure from school:
The dog fetched the ball. (Five words.)
The girl bought the apple juice. (Six words.)
The police talked to the witness. (Six words.)
Peter danced with his grandma. (Five words.)
In these sentences, you know exactly who did what. Each word serves a distinct purpose, so the sentences aren't unnecessarily long. This is what makes active voice so powerful - it's lean, clean, concise, and one hundred percent reader-friendly.
Notice the word count in the right-hand column? Since writing in passive voice tends to hog up tons of space, we now have an extra seven words that weren't needed when writing in active voice. Over the course of an average 100,000 word manuscript, this could easily weigh your story down with up to 20,000 extra words.
A Quick Guide To Tenses
Here's what passive and active voice look like in several common tenses:
Past Tense = Was/Were
Jane was flattered by Jack's compliment. Passive.
Jack's compliment flattered Jane. Active.
Past Progressive = Was/Were + Being
The cake was being baked by Lucy. Passive.
Lucy was baking the cake. Active.
Past Perfect = Had Been
The letter had been opened by Jerry. Passive.
Jerry had opened the letter. Active.
Present Tense = Am/Is/Are
He is rendered speechless by classical music. Passive.
Classical music renders him speechless. Active.
Present Progressive = Am/Is/Are + Being
I am being called by my sister. Passive.
My sister is calling me. Active.
Present Perfect = Has Been/Have Been
The ocean has been seen by me. Passive.
I have seen the ocean. Active.
Future Tense = Will Be/Is Going To Be/Are Going To Be
The seascape will be painted by me. Passive.
I will paint the seascape. Active.
Future Perfect = Will Have Been
The meatloaf will have been cooked by then. Passive.
I will have cooked the meatloaf by then. Active.
Do you struggle with active/passive voice?
How To Use Passive Voice To Enhance A Story
Passive voice isn't always bad. In mystery writing, for example, passive voice can be used to great effect, especially when you want to relate clues or crucial information without identifying the perpetrator or source. Here's how that looks on the page:
The crackers (object) were stolen.
Well, who stole them? We don't know, because you deliberately used passive voice to withhold the identity of the tubby mouse who lives in the pantry. In active voice, this would not be possible, and the thieving mouse would soon face an entire SWAT team.
Kill A Few Nouns
Sometimes, you can avoid slipping into passive voice by replacing one of the nouns in a sentence with a verb. This works well because verbs are inherently active. Consider the following:
John offered a suggestion. John suggested.
Kate turned in a job application. Kate applied for a job.
Harry gave Henry a call. Harry called Henry.
Sue gave Hank a kiss. Sue kissed Hank.
The monk said a prayer. The monk prayed.
A word of warning - not every noun makes a great verb. A little "verbing" can make your writing sound hip, modern, and edgy, as in: "Morpheus bypassed the firewall and accessed the files in twenty-one seconds."
Too much, and you'll sound like a pretentious putz, as in: "Dick helicoptered to Switzerland." (Where he was promptly beaten by a gaggle of angry grammarians.)
Showing Versus Telling
Now that you know the basics, let's take the lesson about active and passive voice one step further. Every editor will tell you the same thing - show, don't tell. But what exactly does that mean? Isn't the act of writing a story, especially in the past tense, an act of telling in and of itself? No at all - if it's done right.
Showing (active voice) involves the senses. The reader sees, hears, feels, smells, and tastes whatever your character does. Telling (passive voice) merely informs the reader that your character experienced or did something. Here's an example of telling:
"John walked outside. The sky was gray. He was about to meet Susan at the diner so he could propose to her. The ring was in his pocket. He hoped she would say yes."
Sweet whale flipper, how boring is that? I told you the facts of what John did, but there's not a sign of excitement for miles around. Do you care what happens next? Would you like to have dinner with John and ask him about his life? I bet not! But all that can change with a quick little rewrite:
"John ducked outside and pulled the collar of his coat high against the steel-clad January sky. Snow curled about the street, below honking taxis and over the steeple of St. Jude's, but he didn't care. Susan waited for him at the diner. Sweet, innocent Susan with the cinnamon eyes and black hair that forever smelled of roses.
He smiled and fingered the silver Claddagh ring in his pocket, wondering how those eyes would look when he asked her to be his wife. Maybe they'd turn dark, like they did when they made love. Maybe they'd fill up with tears. Or maybe, just maybe, they'd turn bright as the sunrise and she'd say yes, and he could finally forget about Amsterdam."
It's a lousy story - sorry about that. But did you feel the cold? Sure, because John saw snow falling from a frozen January sky. Did you get a sense of the landscape? Sure - John saw the church across the street. Did you hear anything? Of course. There were taxis honking nearby. Did you smell Susan's hair and get a look into her eyes? Yep, because John did, even if only in his mind. See, hear, smell, touch. That's four out of five senses - not bad for just a few lines.
The bottom line is this: Writing in active voice is easier if you engage your reader's senses, and do so through your character's eyes, not yours.