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About This Writing Thing: The Lure of Passive Voice

Full disclosure, I am a recovering passive voice abuser. My older work is riddled with it and I once told a writer pal they could have my passive voice when they pried it from my cold, dead hands.

Yes, I still embrace clichés, but that's a topic for another day.

What do we know about passive voice?

- It slows down the narrative

- It's a sign that you're not unpacking your scene enough.

- It sticks out like a sore thumb.

Before we get started, it's important to note that passive voice isn't all bad. Sometimes you may have a character who is quite passive, so they may speak in passive voice. Other times you may prefer to slow down your narrative for effect. It's when your narrative is bogged down with it that you run the risk of losing your readers.

Now, don't start bashing "the rules". Truth is, there are no "rules" to writing outside of grammar and English, and we've made actual careers out of bending and pushing those rules. What we do have, however, is a standard. What does that mean? The standard of fiction is built from reader expectations. Readers are overwhelmed by a ton of exclamation marks (rightly so), avoid using them. Readers want a deeper connection than omniscient can give, write a deeper or close point of view. Readers are bored or confused by too much passive voice, use it sparingly.

We can lament "the rules" all we want, but the truth of the matter is, publishing is hard, and getting readers to notice you is tough. Why would you want to add another complication to that?

Active prose keeps our scenes moving, it helps build tension, and it assists in building strong characters that readers can identify with and root for.

The MC of what I hope will be my debut is a hard character to like. She's living with trauma that she has refused to deal with. She's bitter and angry, and she blames the entire world for her problems. In short, she has a B.A.D. attitude. If I were still the writer I was in 2014, I don't think the reader would identify with her as well, and they certainly wouldn't root for her. It's through her actions and reactions, those very physical moments, that readers feel connected to her. That intimacy isn't something that's easily achieved in passive voice.

But, Sayword, you say, I read books full of passive voice all the time! So do I. I've also tried to read two books in third person omniscient this year. That doesn't mean they were enjoyable, or that I even finished them. Spoilers: I didn't.

Passive voice is a lot like telling. You need it sometimes. In fact, sometimes it doesn't really matter. BUT, when you overuse these elements, your prose becomes tedious and, quite frankly, makes those of us who prefer well-written fiction want to hunt you down and force-feed those words to you. Is that too aggressive? Okay, so it really just makes us not read your books, and it makes us tell our friends not to read your books. You know as well as I do that word of mouth is everything in this business. If you don't know it yet, you will.

So, let's look at some examples of passive vs. active voice.

From The Purple Shelf Club:

Passive: The Barber Motorsports Museum has been visited by people from all over the world.

Active: People from all over the world have visited the Barber Motorsports Museum.

From Grammarly:

Passive: The squirrel was chased by the dog.

Active: The dog chased the squirrel.

You see from these examples, borrowed from The Purple Shelf Club and Grammarly, that passive and active voice is essentially the same thing. The difference is the wording. Passive takes the long way around. It meanders. Whereas, active voice gets it over with. This is what happened, let's keep going.

There are other examples, of course. Other ways that we use passive voice in our work. Little insidious crutches that inevitably show up in a first draft. I often tell writers I work with to do a document search for "had" and "had been" because the use of them usually signals passive voice has been used.

Another thing passive voice usually signals is that we haven't unpacked our scenes properly. If you've listened to About This Writing Thing a few times it's likely you've heard me talk about my favorite article on unpacking, Chuck Palahniuk's article featured in Lit Reactor, Nuts & Bolts: "Thought Verbs". I am a HUGE fan of this article because it's one of the best I've read that talks about unpacking a scene. Though the article is specifically about eliminating thought verbs from your prose, I find that it fits into so many more discussions. Especially those of show and tell, and (shocker) passive voice vs. active.

It is the writer's job to bring their scenes to life. How better to do this than to add life to your scene. Recently, I read a piece of work with nice chunks of dialogue, but no action in the dialogue. So as my mind reads, the characters in the scene are simply frozen in place, throwing words back and forth at one another. There was no movement to show me how the characters were reacting to one another, to submerge me in the scene. Just two people tossing out words.

Action makes a scene move, makes it play before our eyes like a picture show. We come to know characters most intimately when we see how they physically interact with one another and how they react to one another. Passive voice slows that movement down (if there is any), makes it past tense, an afterthought.

So, here's your assignment. Go through your WIP. Check for uses of "was", "had", "has been", "had been", etc., and take a look at those scenes. How can you rewrite them to make them more active? I promise you're going to thank me for this. And, if you don't, your readers will. We all know they're the ones who really matter.

Good luck. Until next time, take care and keep writing!


For more on passive vs. active voice, I encourage you to check out the following:


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