Wednesday 28 August 2019

Writers’ Questions: What is Passive Voice (and is it a sin)?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will debut from Atria Books (more on this here). In this Writers’ Questions series, I’m sharing some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process to help other writers. Last time, I wrote about the much-maligned adverb. And in this post we’re covering another grammatical choice that’s sure to see your writing group submissions covered in red ink—the passive voice.

What is the passive voice?
Passive voice is the opposite of the more common active voice.

In active voice, the basic structure of an English sentence is NOUN (SUBJECT) – ACTIVE VERB or NOUN (SUBJECT) – ACTIVE VERB – NOUN (OBJECT). Confused? Let’s look at some examples.

In the first instance, you might write ‘the rain falls (or fell or is falling or will fall)’ or ‘the girl sneezes/sneezed/is sneezing/will sneeze’. In the second, you could write ‘the boy kicks/kicked/is kicking/will kick the ball’ or ‘the monster devours/devoured/is devouring/will devour the maiden’. All of these examples are written in the active voice, regardless of their tense (whether they happen in the past, present or future).

In the passive voice, however, the structure of the sentence is reversed—the noun that would act as the object in an active sentence becomes the subject of a passive verb. Let’s read some examples, all in the past tense for simplicity: ‘the ball was kicked’, ‘my homework was finished’, ‘the maiden was devoured’.

Often you’ll be able to spot passive voice by the tell-tale preposition ‘by’. This tells the reader who is doing the action described by the passive verb (i.e. which noun would be the subject in the active voice). Here are some examples of this: ‘the ball was kicked by the boy’, ‘the maiden was devoured by the monster’.

But what if there is no ‘by’? ‘My homework was finished’ is a complete sentence, as is ‘my shoes were ruined’. If you want to know for sure if a sentence is in the passive voice, one fun rule of thumb is mentally adding the phrase ‘by zombies’ to the end of your sentence. ‘My homework was finished by zombies’ or ‘my shoes were ruined by zombies’ might sound funny in terms of content, but both sentences are grammatically correct.

Why is passive voice hated? (Hint: try adding ‘by zombies’ here!)
So now we know how to spot passive voice, why might you try to avoid it in your writing?

There are two big reasons. First, active voice is cleaner and clearer. The human brain processes ‘the boy kicked the ball’ much faster than ‘the ball was kicked by the boy’. Don’t make your readers work hard to enjoy your novel! Embrace clarity.

Second, active voice is more exciting and gives your characters more agency. ‘The monster devoured the maiden’ feels more dramatic than ‘the maiden was devoured by the monster’. If you use the passive too much your characters will start to feel passive themselves—a big problem when readers respond well to energetic protagonists.

However, there are occasions when using the passive is acceptable, or even preferable.

When SHOULD I use passive voice?
All writing rules are subjective but I’m going to suggest four occasions when the passive could be your best friend, or at least a valid choice. Do with these what you will.

1. When you’re talking about inanimate objects
When the subject of your sentence is a thing, not a person, the passive voice can be a good choice. ‘A sheet draped the table’ works, but so does ‘a sheet was draped over the table’. Consider context. Are the subjects of surrounding sentences also things? Having too many active inanimate objects starts to read weirdly and make readers feel like they’re in a scene from Beauty and the Beast.

2. When you don’t know who did the verb
Sometimes the subject of a certain action is unknown, or at least unknown to your characters. If you’re working up to a big reveal about who burned your protagonist’s house down, for example, it could be a good idea to have her say ‘my house was burned to the ground’. In dialogue, this also provides other characters with an opportunity to ask who did the thing, heightening a sense of mystery.

3. When you’re making a point about a character’s passivity
Sometimes the thematic and emotional focus of your sentence is more on its object, than its subject, especially when it comes to depicting suffering. ‘Jesus was flogged and crucified’ has an impact distinct from ‘the soldiers flogged and crucified Jesus’. It’s important to understand this and to make a choice accordingly. If your character is being ‘buffeted by a crowd’ or ‘ignored by everyone’, you may WANT them to come across as passive.

4. When using a phrase that’s usually in the passive
Our wonderful language is replete with expressions, idioms, and quotes. Shockingly, some of these are in the passive. There’s no need to rephrase these because you’ve developed a sudden allergy to the passive voice. How silly would James Bond sound if he started asking bartenders to stir, not shake, his martinis, rather than asking for a martini, shaken, not stirred?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the passive voice. Do you love it or hate/is it loved or hated by you? And let me know if there are other topics you’d like to see me cover as part of my Writers’ Questions series—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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