The Passive Voice: A Brief Tutorial

A few years ago, I participated in an on-line writing group. I’m not generally a joiner, but I thought I’d give it a go. And I did get some advice from various members that helped me hone my writing, so that’s a good thing.

Anyway, the first time I submitted a chapter to the group, one of the other members sent it back with all instances of the word “was” highlighted. She told me, “You should eliminate the passive from your work.” I started looking at what she had marked, and I noticed that I did, indeed, use the word “was” a lot, and that it seemed to slow down the flow of the narrative. I also noticed that very few instances of that word represented true usage of the passive voice.

 Five years later, I still mark instances of “was” (along with “that” and “just” and “really”) in my first drafts. And they’re still very rarely the passive voice. But the antipathy toward passive voice lives on. I’ve seen a number of internet discussions on it. The thing is, very few people seem to know what the passive voice is. I think this may be because “the rules” cause them to avoid it, and you can’t understand something you’re avoiding. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand something, you can’t properly avoid it, either. So here is my brief tutorial on the Passive Voice.

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Passive Voice means the subject of your sentence receives the action. It puts the agency outside your character (or whatever you happen to be talking about). Recently one acquaintance remarked that she uses Bart Simpson saying “mistakes were made” as an example, because it shows him not claiming responsibility. Well, that is the Passive Voice, but ownership or lack of it isn’t the reason. The reason it’s passive is that the subject of the sentence (mistakes) had something done to them (were made). Bart could have owned the action by saying “Mistakes were made by me,” and the construction would still be passive.

 The mere existence of the simple past tense of the verb “to be” is not necessarily indicative of the Passive Voice. You need to take the agency away as well. It’s true, you may want to look at an overabundance of that particular verb form, because “was” is static. It’s experiential, and while a character’s experiences are an important part of writing, they don’t always move the story. Replacing them can lead to more picturesque writing. Compare, “the tree was in the meadow” with “the tree towered over the grasses and wildflowers in the meadow.” With the second, you’ve placed the tree in the same place, but you’ve made it do something other than just stand there. You’ve also given yourself the opportunity to paint a better picture of the setting (adding the grasses and the wildflowers in contrast to the tree).

 Here’s where some confusion comes in. In that example, the second sentence is indeed more “active.” However, it was never “passive” in terms of voice. Nothing happened to the tree. If I had said, “the tree was struck by lightning,” then the tree would have received the action, and the construction would be passive.

 I like to make a distinction between “passive” and “static.” Lots of things are static that are not passive. Descriptive language like similes and metaphors is most often static. “The moon was like a big cheese on the horizon,” or “The cat was a monster.” Sometimes you can eliminate the static language and sometimes you can’t. It’s up to you whether you want to.

Personally, I don’t have it in for the Passive Voice. There are times you might want to use it. If your protagonist gets swept away by a flood, she might very well be feeling a lack of agency which you want to promote. Or, you could turn it around and say, “The flood swept her away.” It just depends on what you want to convey. Just remember, if your characters continually lack agency, they might not be very interesting.

 The End.

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