Friday, June 9

The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week’s Refresher Friday takes a heavily updated look at why passive voice is so often a problem in writing. Enjoy!

“Avoid the passive voice” is one of those pieces of advice most writers have heard and likely struggled with at some point. It’s good advice, since revising passive into active typically makes the sentence stronger, but like all things writing, simply doing it because people say so isn’t always the best idea. Without understanding why a passive voice causes trouble, you might rewrite it when it’s actually the best thing for your story at that moment. It does have it’s uses after all.

So first, let's look at what passive voice means.

I used to be one of those folks who wrongly equated passive voice with all forms of the "to be" verb, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one. Because quite often, a “to be” verb is at the heart of a troublesome sentence, but a “to be” verb doesn't always signal passive writing.

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence gets all the action instead of the subject doing the acting. For example:
Bob was bitten by a zombie.
This is a passive voice sentence. Bob is the subject here, but Bob doesn't do anything, except maybe stand there like an idiot, and the zombie bites him. “Bob was acted upon by a zombie.” It practically the same sentence (which can be a way to test your own sentences).

In active voice, we'd flip it so that the action (the biting) is done by the subject. Since Bob biting the zombie really isn’t an option here, we’ll need to change the subject of the sentence and rewrite it.
The zombie bit Bob.
This turns the passive voice into an active voice and puts the action in the hands of the subject of the sentence.

Of course, this also shifts the focus from Bob to the zombie, which we might not want to do. The original sentence said that Bob got bitten, not that zombies bite. It’s subtle, but it’s a shift away from the protagonist and what’s happening to him, and puts the focus on a mindless zombie readers aren’t likely to care about.

Even though the sentence is now active, it’s still putting distance between readers and the story—and very likely the point of why Bob was getting bitten in the first place. The problem with this sentence isn’t the passive nature of it, but the way it keeps readers from the action and prevents them from engaging in the story and the likely importance of this moment.

And this is why passive voice can hurt our writing.

Because ultimately, this isn’t about grammar, it’s about writing a sentence in a way that gets the idea we want to convey across in a dramatic fashion that engages our readers.

The trouble comes from passive voices frequently holding readers at bay from the story. The passive nature keeps them from connecting to the characters and losing themselves in the story, and if we revise in a way that is equally detached (such as shifting the action away from the characters), the problem still exists. For example:
The zombie bit him. Bob screamed.
Grammatically, this fixes the passive voice problem, but it’s not very exciting and still has the detached feel issue. But let’s make Bob the subject of the sentence again—even if that means rewriting this concept completely to show the series of events that illustrate the idea that “Bob was bitten by a zombie.”
The zombie seized Bob’s leg and bit down, dangerously close to breaking the skin. Bob screamed and went still. One wrong twitch and he’d be worse than lunch.
A much more interesting situation, even though this also says, “Bob was bitten by a zombie.” The problem with this sentence was never the passive voice, it was that the passive voice was masking a dramatic moment readers deserve to see played out.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with a passive voice or sentence if it’s also doing its job and making the reader want to see what happens next. If the passive voice works and does what you want it to do in that scene, there’s no reason to change it. Maybe you want a little distance between the subject and the action. Maybe you want a sense of detachment. Maybe you want to sneak it by readers but still drop that detail in. There are all sorts of reasons why you might choose to keep a passive sentence.

Let’s look at a passive voice gray area next:
Bob was running from the zombies.
Bob is indeed the subject here, and he is indeed the one doing the acting. Bob is running. But a funny thing happens when you use the -ing form of a verb. It can sound passive and make us feel we ought to rewrite it, even when we don’t need to. Writers struggling with passive voice might easily change this to:
Bob ran from the zombies.
This uses a stronger verb and it eliminates the “to be” verb and the gerund. But this has a slightly different meaning than the first example. Often, we use a sentence like this to show something happening in the middle of the action. “Was running” suggests action in progress, while “ran” suggests action just started or action completed.

A sentence like this can also trigger our passive voice flags when it isn’t actually passive. If this sentence was intended to show action in progress, it’s highly likely there’s more to ityou can practically hear the "when" at the end of this:
Bob was running from the zombies when a car hit him.
Though our passive flags might say this is a passive sentence, it's actually active. Bob (the subject) was running (the verb). You can't say "Bob ran from the zombies when the car hit him" because that changes the meaning of the sentence. The car hits Bob in the middle of him running from the zombies. He is actively engaged in the act when something else happens.

Although taste vary, I’d say the problem with this sentence isn’t a passive voice, but that it’s told, explaining what Bob was doing when something happened to him. Readers don’t see him get hit while running, they’re told that he got hit while running. Our instincts flag it as a problem, but we can easily miss the real culprit.

(Here’s more on what you need to know about show don’t tell)

If you’re worried about passive voice in your manuscripts, try searching for “to be” verbs: Is, am are, was, were, has, have, had, being, been, and be. You can find most passive voice problems here.

Passive voice is only a problem when it’s making your readers feel detached from your story. Revise to reengage, and you’ll solve that problem.

Have you struggled with passive voice? Does it bother you when you read?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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24 comments:

  1. It wasn't until I was an adult, a couple years out of college, that I truly understand the connotation of passive vs. active voice. And I still have times when I struggle with it!

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  2. I always have trouble with these kinds of rules. I end up breaking them all without realizing it. The other one is starting a sentence with "As" or something like that. I dunno, like "As Bob ran from the zombie, he was hit by a car." or something. I forget what it's called. Hanging participle? Anyways, I always do that and think it sounds good, but apparently it's wrong.

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  3. Thanks for this. I really needed it. Colin, yeah I make that mistake too. There's also a rule that says never to start sentences with "And", but people break that rule (I've seen it in books). What I want to know is, is it okay to break these rules? Will people turn a blind eye when you break them?

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  4. It's not an easy thing, because like so many other rules, there are times when it's okay to use it. I use both as and and to start sentences, and it didn't keep me from selling my book.

    You guys have all heard me say this a bunch of times by now, but anything can be done if done well. If breaking a rule is the best way to say what you want to say, then break it. If breaking that rule is the just easiest way, then chances are it's just lazy writing. And that's when all those pesky "don't ever" rules come into play, because they are the most frequently misused writing tools for lazy writing. So people say "don't ever" when they really should be saying "don't cheat by"

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  5. Thanks Janice and Glen. I think you're right. I would have to look at the cases where I've broken those rules and see if I was being lazy or not. I have a friend who points those cases out to me and says, "don't ever," and I've always questioned that because I don't really believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to writing (and other forms of art). So that's why I was asking. I guess I just have to take advice like that with a grain of salt. If someone sees something that bothers them, it will probably bother other people as well, but if it works for what I was going for then maybe I should keep it.

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  6. I hope you don't mind me responding to an older post. I quite agree with most of yor statements here, but it seems to me that your "was running" example is actually the present participleused to form the progressive aspect of the verb, rather than the gerund.

    Anyway, I'm glad you're putting the correct information out there, regarding "passive writing".

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  7. Commenting on old posts is fine :)

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  8. Found this nice post at the moment I needed it. Goodigood >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  9. Thank you for this. I bookmarked it. I'm having such a hard time with this subject and this post helps.
    Thanks!

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  10. "Active and passive voice" are only the form wise distinction. "Be" is never a really active verb, though it helps forming some of their forms (with present participle: "I am looking at ...").

    Be and become are substantive verbs, actually synonyms of "exist" and "come into being". Her hair was red=her hair existed as something red. Her cheeks became red=her cheeks came into being as a red thing (already existing in their other respects).

    All other verb forms can be regarded as equivalent of "be+participle" with participles available in English for active non-past and for (usually) passive past. And with participled forms (in English) anyway not quite the same time form as simpler counterpart.

    The other verbs can be intransitive like stand, walk; transitive active like hit, transitive passive like be hit, passive non-transitive like fall, sleep, active non-transitive ... already done that, intransitive, and the two or three medium voices: reflexive, reciprocal, indirectly reflexive: "wash oneself, wash eachother, wash something/someone for oneself".

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  11. An appropiate occasion for passive: "Bob suddenly knew he had been bitten. Was it a zombie or the vampire who did it?"

    (Really "who had done it" but Bob is of course thinking in the words "who HAS DONE it" or who DID it" without any HAD.)

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  12. And gerund/present participle (same form in English different ones in Latin) with be is of course not passive voice formally. To be falling is passive insofar as it is something that happens to one, but in order to get passive voice, you need to get a past participle of a transitive verb: be gone won't do, since gone is from intransitive, but be bitten does, since bite is active.

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  13. So sorry, I must go all grammar nazi yet again.

    Outside of any specific context, running is a present participle.

    In the sentence "Running is fun," running is a gerund. Gerunds are nouns.

    In the sentence "Jane heard running water," running is a participial adjective.

    In the sentence "Bob was running," was running is a verb in the past progressive (aka past continuous) tense.

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  14. Thanks for the correction! I've made the change

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  16. Excellent post, thanks for sharing! :)

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  17. I must make a sweep of my WIP for this issue. Your direction is very simple and something I should be able to implement, right now!

    Thx for the explanation, this will help my writing.

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  18. I know this is an older post, but it's so great. Nothing beats actual examples. Thanks.

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  19. Useful stuff. There are a lot of Blogs out there purporting to help people with their writing skills. This is one of the few that consistently includes solid advice about concrete techniques.

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  20. Hi Janice
    So glad this one was in the pictures at the top of your site.
    I've just read a post elsewhere about editing that skated over passive voice, and this cleared up my subsequent confusion, so thanks :)
    cheers
    Mike

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    Replies
    1. Oh good! So glad it was able to help. It can be confusing, since many mix up or group together passive voice and passive verbs.

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  21. actually english is spoken throughout the world because it is one of the most important languages and alot of countries make thier students learn it.

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  22. I just want to tell an engaging story and your post (as do many of your posts) helps me do that. Thank you!

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