Active vs. passive voice is one of those concepts that seems to confound many writers. We think we’re writing actively, that it’s clear our characters are doing what they’re doing, but often we’re not.
First look, it appears a relatively easy job to identify which one you’re using—second look, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
So, let’s start at the beginning with some definitions to help us in this process.
Firstly, let’s look at some words we’ll need to understand before we look at each of the voices in turn:
Subject of a sentence = this refers to a person, place or thing who is the main topic of a sentence. This ‘thing’ can be referred to by its name, a title or by a pronoun (he, she, I, you, it, this)
Verb = an action or ‘doing’ word
Now, onto the good stuff . . .
ACTIVE VOICE = when the subject performs or causes the verb
- The subject comes before the verb/action
- The subject is the ‘thing’ that is performing the verb/action
- The receiver comes after the subject
Jane kicked the ball into the goal.
Jane scored a goal.
Jane discovered it was harder to kick the ball in the rain.
See how easy it is to identify who is performing the action? In all cases, Jane is actively doing something. The sentences are clear, concise and easy to follow. And just as importantly, they are to the point—something that’s great for faster paced writing.
PASSIVE VOICE = when the subject is the receiver of the verb
- The subject comes after the verb/action
- The subject is the ‘thing’ that receives or experiences the verb/action
- The receiver comes before the subject
The ball was kicked into the goal by Jane.
The goal was scored by Jane.
It was discovered by Jane that it is harder to kick the ball in the rain.
Can you sense how roundabout these sentences are? They’re cumbersome, and definitely wordier. It takes a little work to discover who the real subject is, ie, who is actually doing something and what they’ve done.
How does this look visually?
Why should we choose active over passive voice in our writing?
Because by doing so we make our subject the focus of that sentence. When our subject is our character, this shows our character taking action or taking control of the situation.
With passive voice, our writing is weaker, our tension is diluted and our action is less . . . active.
Active voice tends to be less verbose (uses less words) and it is a much stronger, more action-oriented form of writing. Changing passive voice into active voice will immediately ramp up the pace of your writing. It will make your writing tighter, sleeker and smoother, making the reading experience much easier and less cumbersome.
How do we identify passive voice?
When identifying passive voice, there will be a double verb in the sentence. This double verb will consist of:
- some form of the verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been), and
- the past participle of another verb (usually ending in –ed)
Let’s see how this looks visually:
As mentioned above, passive voice exerts a huge impact on pacing. If you want to identify passive voice in your manuscript, the easiest way is to search for forms of the verb (to be).
The meal was cooked by Aunt Ellie.
Notice here that our double verb is ‘was cooked’—linking our ‘to be’ verb (was) with an –ed verb (cooked). If we turn this sentence around and make it active, we’ll end up with:
Aunt Ellie cooked the meal.
Now we have five words instead of seven. This sentence is clearer, and Aunt Ellie seems more active. She’s actually done something, in comparison to the first example, where it sounds as if the meal is doing something! Until you look closer, that is.
When would we choose to use passive voice?
Sometimes there is method in our madness and we intentionally use passive voice. Situations when this may occur include:
- when we are intentionally trying to hide the subject of our sentence, ie, we are trying to hide who performed the action
The window was broken by a random ball.
Note the double verb, was from the verb ‘to be’ and broken from the verb ‘to break’.
When could we use this sentence? If a child wanted to divert blame for their action (or accident), they might say something like this.
The active version of this sentence would be ‘I broke the window with a ball,’ immediately identifying the speaker as the guilty culprit.
- When intentionally trying to minimize guilt for an action, the subject might say something like:
The window was broken by me.
By making the subject go last in this sentence, it takes emphasis off them, lessening the impact of the statement.
- When passive voice better emphasizes the main point of the message.
Windows were broken by children in the neighborhood.
This example could be used in a report or a speech. It may not directly link subject (children) and verb (broken) but it does wield a certain amount of impact if used for these purposes.
ACTIVE: A sudden thickness coated her throat, making it impossible to speak.
PASSIVE: Her throat was coated with a sudden thickness, making it impossible to speak.
ACTIVE: He twirled the stake once more, close enough that I caught the acrid stench of death on his breath.
PASSIVE: The stake was twirled in his hands once more, close enough that the acrid stench of death on his breath was burning my nostrils.
ACTIVE: James would wreak havoc, as he’d done once before.
PASSIVE: Havoc would be wreaked by James, as it had done once before.
ACTIVE: I pinned his burly arms backward and he stumbled, breaking the alpha’s stride.
PASSIVE: His burly arms were pinned backward and he stumbled, causing the alpha to break his stride.
ACTIVE: She twisted the wayward strand before tucking it back behind her ear.
PASSIVE: The wayward strand was twisted before she tucked it back behind her ear.
ACTIVE: The blazing sky painted her skin with a fiery glow.
PASSIVE: Her skin was painted with a fiery glow from the blazing sky.
And still more examples:
And that’s all folks!
I hope I’ve helped clear up the mystery of active vs. passive voice. If you have any questions, make sure you post them in the comments beneath the blog and I’ll be sure to get back to you. Or if you have any examples of active or passive voice you’d like to share or maybe discuss, please post them too!
Firstly, thank you all for coming back this month. I really appreciate every one of you reading, commenting and sharing my posts.
I’ve been very slack this month and haven’t announced last month’s winner for the 30 minute skype session. No better time than now to do it.
Drum roll . . .
And the winner is:
Congratulations Lexi. Please email me on email@example.com to discuss redeeming your skype session.
Once again this month, I’m offering one lucky commenter a half hour skype session to discuss anything writing related. It could be your query, your synopsis or 300 words from your current work in progress. We could even discuss how you can incorporate a more active voice into your story. Yes, you heard right. We get to chat, face-to-face—or computer screen to computer screen—about whatever it is about your writing you’d like to discuss.
To enter the draw, please comment below and share the most surprising or useful thing you’ve learned since reading my Simply Writing blogs. Any ideas on what you’d like to see featured on future blogs will be gratefully received. Or perhaps you’d like to share how you’ll start to incorporate a more active voice into your current WIP.
Any and all comments welcome! I love reading your feedback and input each month ☺ and much as this blog isn’t set up for notifications, I always ALWAYS answer your comments. So make sure you pop back to check my replies ☺
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A name will be drawn in time for next month’s blog so please pop back next month to see if you’re a winner ☺
Thanks so much to you all for stopping by. Have a fabulous month, and I’ll see you all again in November ☺
Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.
She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.
In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.