All good creative writers know that active characters make all the difference. No one wants to read about a protagonist who is passive and always acted upon. Instead, readers want to read about characters who act for themselves and make things happen. Well, this creative writing rules extends to more than just characters; it actually also plays a part in how you write as well.
Passive Voice Explained
If you have had your work edited before, you’ve likely heard this phrase: “Oh, that sentence uses way too much passive voice!” But what does that even mean? What is passive voice, and why should we as writers pay so much attention to it?
Passive voice refers to a sentence where the main object and the main subject are switched around, so that the object acts upon the subject instead of the other way around. The subject of a sentence is the main person, place, or thing. The object of the sentence is the thing being acted upon. When the object and subject switch places within a sentence, the sentence typically becomes passive. Here’s an example of what I am talking about.
Passive Example: The geography test was failed by Jimmy.
Correct Example: Jimmy failed the geography test.
In this example, the words “the geography test” are the object of the sentence, as this is the portion being acted upon. In the passive example, “the geography test” comes first, taking the place of where the subject usually comes. “Jimmy” is the subject of the sentence, as he is the person acting by failing the test. By placing Jimmy, the subject, after the object, the sentence switches to passive voice. Here’s another example of passive voice:
Passive Example: The old lady had been helped across the street by my father.
Correct Example: My father helped the old lady cross the street.
This example again misplaces the object and the subject. “The old lady” is the object of the sentence, while “my father” is the subject. As we see in the corrected example, this is fixed by placing the subject before the object so that the subject is acting upon the object.
Zombie Passive Voice Test
With that being said, it can sometimes be tricky to tell whether a sentence is passive or not. You may have noticed that both of the passive examples above end with a prepositional phrase starting with “by.” This is a trick you can use when identifying passive sentences. I call it the Zombie Passive Voice Test. To verify if the sentence is passive, add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of the sentence. If the sentence makes sense with this addition, then the sentence is passive.
Example One: The store across the street was robbed… by zombies.
Example Two: My siblings fought all afternoon over a doll… by zombies.
Example One is a passive sentence as the addition of “by zombies” makes sense with the sentence. On the other hand, Example Two does not make sense with “by zombies” tacked on to the end, so this example sentence is not in passive voice. This is an easy trick to remember and should work in every situation for identifying passive voice.
Why Does Passive Voice Even Matter?
So, what’s the deal? Why does all of this subject-object mumbo-jumbo matter? Why should you as a writer make the effort of writing in active voice instead of passive voice?
Just as active characters make your story more interesting, active writing also captivates your readers. On principle, passive sentences have more unnecessary words and phrases, as well as bog the readers down. Active sentences also automatically help the characters act more than being acted upon as the subject of sentences tend to be characters themselves. With them being the actors of the sentence, they will become the main action of a story rather than victims or side notes. Overall, active voice will improve the quality of your writing itself.
Is Passive Voice Ever Acceptable?
For the most part, active voice is almost always preferable for the reasons mentioned above. However, there are two situations where passive voice comes in handy.
Situation one is when you want to emphasize victimization. In the case of a character being attacked, abused, or acted upon, it sometimes works to use passive voice. Using passive voice in these instances, especially when you typically use active voice, is a subtle signal to readers of this victimization. This can be a great tool to utilize in your creative writing.
Situation two is if you simply do not know who the actor is. In some cases, you may not have all the information needed to make the sentence active. For example, if you were reporting on a criminal case with an unknown perpetrator, you might write, “The house was broken into last night around midnight.” This sentence is clearly passive, but sometimes this cannot be helped. Typically, you fix passive sentences by putting the subject back in front of the object, but with no known subject or actor, the sentence will likely need to remain passive. This type of situation usually occurs more in scholarly writing than creative writing.
Experiment With Writing Voice
At first, making the adjustment to writing with active instead of passive voice may be difficult. However, once you start to train yourself, it will become second nature. Experiment with using active voice in your writing as well as throwing in passive sentences with the situation requires it. You’ll find that eliminating passive sentences will make a huge difference in your writing.