Wednesday, July 30, 2014

CRAFT CORNER: Bill and Jane Did What Now? Passive Voice in Fiction

by Isabo Kelly

Fair warning, I’m only going to cover the very basics of this topic. For further reading, I recommend visiting Grammar Girl (http://www.quickan­ who has a couple of excellent articles on her website covering this issue. The topic of Passive Voice comes up a lot in conversations with other writers, and frequently the term gets used to refer to inactive verb choice. In the same breath, “passive voice” is often labeled as something that should absolutely never be used.

In actuality, passive voice is a very handy grammatical construct that can be useful in the right situations.

Let’s start by first defining exactly what it is. In short, passive voice is

when a sentence is constructed so that the subject of the sentence is being acted on rather than doing the acting. Look at these example sentences:

1. Bill and Jane started running the gauntlet.

2. Bill and Jane ran the gauntlet.

3. The gauntlet was run by Bill and Jane.

Example number 3 is the sentence constructed using passive voice. The first example—the example that can wrongly be referred to as passive voice—is actually simply the use of a weaker verb construction. That’s not to say the weaker construction is wrong either. This might be exactly what you mean to say. But it’s not the stron­gest verb choice in the examples. The stronger verb choice, and the active sentence, is shown in example 2.

Generally, when writing fiction, example 2 is the kind of sentence you want to lean toward. Active voice, strong verb, reads well, says what you want it to say, simple and straight-forward.

In contrast, sentences written in passive voice are often awkward to read. The sentence doesn’t really say what you want it to, or it is too convoluted for a reader to navigate smoothly. If you haven’t used the passive con­struction on purpose, your writing can feel stilted and create distance with your reader. Passive voice tends to require more words as well. The writing will feel tighter if active voice is used. As a side note, if active verbs are used, the writing also feels tighter. I suspect this is why the two grammar issues are often confused.

Another mistake people tend to make is assuming that every form of “to be” represents passive voice. This isn’t true. There’s no reason to shun “to be” in all cases. Sometimes, “to be” is the only verb that fits the sentence.

So when is passive voice actually a good thing? Occasionally, particularly in speech writing and corporate memos, passive voice comes in handy when trying to deflect blame. A classic example is: “Mistakes were made.” By delivering the sentence this way, the speaker isn’t saying exactly who made those mistakes or ac­cepting blame for the mistakes directly. Passive voice is great at spinning facts so that the person using it isn’t actually lying, but they aren’t exactly being upfront with the full truth.

How can that help in your fiction? If you have a politician or CEO giving a speech, for example, they might require passive voice in their dialogue. It’s even possible your protagonist will use passive voice in their internal thoughts or in dialogue to avoid accepting blame for their actions. Used with conscious thought, passive voice can actually be a very powerful tool in your writer’s arsenal. It’s just important to recognize what it is and why you’re using it.

Understanding what passive voice is will enable you to avoid it where you don’t want it and use it when the writing calls for it. As with all grammar topics, knowing the “rules” is the only way to effectively use or break them in service of your fiction. Once you understand the difference between active and passive voice, you’ll ensure your writing is filled with exactly the types of sentences you intend.♥
Isabo Kelly highly recommends writers hunt up actual grammar experts for more on this topic. She still works at weeding the occasional inadvertent appearance of passive voice out of her own writing. Her latest fantasy ro­mance release THE DARKNESS OF GLENGOWYN (Fire and Tears #2) benefits greatly from active voice. For more on Isabo visit her at, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly, or friend her on Facebook

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