Monday, April 10, 2023

The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Passive voice in a novel can put your readers right to sleep.

Before we dive in, a little heads up that I'm over at Writers in the Storm today, chatting about how to use clich├ęs, metaphors, and similes to bring your story world to life.  Come on over and say hello.

And now on to our regularly scheduled article...

“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 its 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.

(Here's more with Five Ways to Kick Your Writing up a Notch)

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—the passive voice was just hiding 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.

(Here's more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

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 -ing. 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 it—you 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 tastes vary, I’d say the problem with this revised 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 with 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 there.

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.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick a scene from your novel and examine it for passive voice. If you find it, edit to shift into an active voice.  

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

*Originally published May 2009. Last update April 2023.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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!

  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.

  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?

  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"

  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.

  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".

    1. "Bob was running from the zombies" is not passive. It is past progressive and show something has been happening over a period of time. "The zombies were being run from" is passive. So you are not putting out the correct information regarding passive writing. It is often very useful if something occurs and the point of view character doesn't know who did it. It's very hard to write a mystery without using passive tense.

  7. Commenting on old posts is fine :)

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

    Cold As Heaven

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

  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".

  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.)

  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.

  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.

    1. Well said! So much confusion

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

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Excellent post, thanks for sharing! :)

  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.

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

  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.

  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 :)

    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.

  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.

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

  23. Dear Janice ~ Please continue sending older posts. They are helpful and instructive for newbies like myself.

  24. the example of imperfective past (-ing) vs perfective past is nothing to do with passive voice. Passive is where the normal subject becomes the object or vice versa.

    It's when something happens to something or someone.

    You could with difficulty write an entire novel in passive voice, and it would be awful and possibly hilarious. Some things are very hard to say in passive voice, like "I got up" would have to become something like "my body was hoisted from the bed by my legs" or something. "I walked to the kitchen" would become something like "I was carried to the kitchen by my legs". Something you would normally just do, would have to become something that happened to you. Often in passive voice, there's no subject at all in the sentence. I was bitten has no subject. I in this case is the object of the verb. The subject is unstated.

  25. This is really great advice.

    The only problem I have is with the use of "gerund". It's a common misconception that every word ending in "-ing" is a gerund. But a gerund is only the "-ing" form of a verb that's being used as a noun (eg: Camping is fun; studying is hard).

    Here "was running" is acting as the verb in the sentence. The "no gerunds rule" should be renamed as the "no progressive verbs" rule. And, as you state, simply doing it because people say so isn’t always the best idea.

    1. I thought I had fixed that. My bad. I'll correct that now, and thanks for setting me straight.