Active vs. Passive Voice 


One thing editors frequently get after writers about is the use of active vs. passive voice. Everyone faces this critique at times: “Make this sentence more active, will you? It should be snappier,” or “Passive voice bogs down the narrative.” But what exactly is passive voice, and how should you avoid it?

First, let’s clear up a common misconception. In fiction, people tend to target use of “was,” “has been,” and “it is,” calling them out as passive. While they are indications of passive writing, “was” and its compatriots can be useful in a narrative…provided you don’t overdo it. Moderation is key; even Strunk & White agree that the passive voice is necessary at times.

For example, “He wasn’t sure how he got home” indicates some time has passed, and might be used after a scene break. There’s a time and a place for “was,” and its use does not automatically mean you’re stuck in passive voice and need to revise everything you ever wrote. With that said, active writing is far more accessible and generally more exciting to read, and for those of us who write fiction, active voice is a necessity.

Consider this passive example:

“He was cold and alone. He was upset about the game he’d lost that day. His sister would never forgive him.” 

Yes, it’s passively written, but it’s also telling instead of showing, which is also a big no-no as far as good storytelling goes. Telling and passive voice tend to travel together, as a writer using passive voice is passively telling his reader what’s going on as opposed to actively showing him. Try this actively written piece instead:

“His teeth chattered as he recalled the lost game. Sally would never forgive him.” 

Editors and writers tend to favor active voice because it’s a clear, concise way to tell a story. The easiest way to describe active voice is the subject of the sentence doing something. In the words of your English teacher, this is “Subject-Verb-Object.” For example, Ronald fired the gun.”

In passive voice, the subject winds up at the end of the sentence. The reliable English teacher might translate it as, “Object-Verb-Subject.” For example, “The gun was fired by Ronald.”

These are particularly clunky examples, but you can see how the active sentence is shorter and more to the point; the passive sentence is long, doesn’t flow well, and comes off as overly complicated. It also commits the cardinal sin of leading to distance between reader and story, because the way it’s written often makes readers pause to reread it and make sure they understand what it says. Stopping them in the middle of reading makes it that much harder for them to connect with the characters.

I’ll leave out the fact that it also sounds unnervingly like a crime report (one place where passive voice tends to flourish).

Active voice helps almost any story out, whether it’s written in past or present tense. Yes, active voice extends to present tense. Think about it: “The gun is fired by Ronald over and over again” as opposed to Ronald fires the gun over and over again.” It’s a subtle change, but the active version flows much better. Readers have a finite amount of patience; extra verbiage can throw them right out of a storyline.

Passive voice can sneak up on all of us from time to time. I tend to identify and fix my passive slips with a three-step process, which I’ll share with you now. Look over your own work; do you see any instances of passive voice? What can you do to make them active? Does your story read better after the changes?

(As a brief aside, a lot of fantasy and historical writers tend to fall into the passive trap, because they’re often dealing with huge, exotic worlds that need a lot of explanation. Take a look at your backstory; it’s prime territory for passive intrusion.

One quick way to trim passive voice out of the backstory is to determine just how much background is actually necessary. If the details you’re providing are not absolutely crucial to the story, can you cut them entirely? Can you have it delivered via some other means—a character describing an event, for example, or describing a character performing one ritual or another? Instead of delivering your backstory in one big chunk, reveal it by showing a character either learning about his past or perhaps instructing a pupil.)

If your backstory is sound or you don’t have any, look over the rest of your writing. If you do see a lot of “was” or “has been,” try reading those out loud. If it sounds like you’re telling the reader facts than describing a scene, then you likely need to switch into a more active voice.

But how to do this?

This process gets easier as you go, but try to address passive voice one sentence at a time. For example, take the sentence “He was afraid.”

OK, he’s afraid. He isn’t doing anything. He isn’t even really feeling, as far as the reader can tell; all we know is “he was afraid.” Look at this sentence and write down a few alternate versions. Remember that active writing is someone doing something. Instead of just passively telling us he is afraid, bring him to life by showing us what he’s feeling, if he’s bleeding, or just standing there in terror. Explore how he feels when he’s afraid. What are his physical reactions to the fear? What thoughts are racing through his head? Besides livening up your writing, you’re also broadening his character.

Here’s a couple of revised versions of the sentence:

“His stomach clenched up into a knot, and his heart was probably pounding loudly enough for his pursuers to hear.”

Or

Stay calm, Harry. Stay calm. Fear won’t get you anywhere. He dug his hands into the wood doorframe, his breathing ragged.”

What do your versions look like? What aspects of his fear do you touch on?

Go through your work sentence by sentence, scene by scene, exploring whether you’re actively presenting your characters or passively telling your readers about them. It’s a long process, but you can eventually train yourself to write in mostly active voice. Don’t forget to look over your work later, preferably after putting it away for a little while. Distance helps you spot the errors, the strange turns of phrase, and yes, the passive writing. It takes some time to retrain your brain to write like this, but keep at it and you’ll be writing in a more active voice in no time at all.