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Monday, March 11, 2013

Passive and Active Voice

Picture Credit: http://www.tickettoanywhere.net/2012/08/
Okay, I'll be the first to admit that passive aggressive behavior and passive voice have nothing to do with each other. But I couldn't resist this poster when I found it! Isn't it great? I'd hate to be the owner of this truck.

As a writer, you've probably heard repeatedly to never use a passive voice. As a general rule, this is correct. But any rule that starts with "never" is meant to be broken sometimes. Before we start looking at the why's and the exceptions, let's look at what passive and active voices are.

What is a passive voice? Passive means that the verb is acting on the subject. A basic example is:
The ball was kicked by John.

What is an active voice? Active means that the subject of the sentence is acting out the verb. The active form of the previous example is:
John kicked the ball.

These basic examples show why "was" is criticized as a indicator of a passive sentence. But remember, "was" is NOT the reason a sentence is passive. A sentence may be active and contain a "was" and a sentence may be passive without the word "was."

Go sentence by sentence through your work. In each sentence, pick out the subject and the verb. Is the verb being done to the subject or by the subject?

Credit: http://writeworld.tumblr.com/post/34047956454/
I love this tweet that I found on identifying passive sentences! It works. The point is that in passive sentences there isn't much emphasis on the thing performing the action, so "by zombies" can be inserted without a problem. (As a side note for anyone reading this blog translated into a language other than English, this quick way of identifying passive versus active voice may not work.)

In my earlier example, I used:
The ball was kicked by John.
John kicked the ball.

In the passive sentence, John can be left out entirely (or changed to "by zombies"). It becomes:
The ball was kicked.
The ball was kicked by zombies.

But the active sentence doesn't work that way. If we tried to do the same thing, we'd end up with:
Kicked the ball.
Kicked by zombies the ball.

Now we'll dive into why active is USUALLY better than passive. Think of the books that you couldn't put down, the one's that kept you up all night even though you knew you'd have to get up for work or school in the morning. What did you like about those books? I'm guessing there are a lot of things you liked--but one thing that is probably high on the list (if not the top thing) is that you could "see" the world through the character's eyes. The character's problems were your own problems, and you had to see how they'd be resolved or you couldn't rest.

That type of intensity can not come if the characters are side-notes in the story that are being acted on. In your own life, you actively experience things around you. Even if you are sitting on the couch watching television--or reading my blog--you are actively taking in what you see. You are mentally processing it.

Now for the exception. Sometimes we do want the passive voice for special emphasis. For example, if an unknown driver hits and kills the main character's child, the main character's immediate response will likely be in the passive voice of: "My child was hit," rather than the active voice of: "Someone hit my child." Later in the story, as the main character tries to come to terms with a hit and run and is dealing with anger, it would make sense to switch to the active voice, which is much more accusatory. But during initial shock and grief, the normal reaction would be to put all the emphasis on what was done to the child.

I have a similar instance in my book where the main character is dealing with shock to the point that she feels like she is in a cloud. To help emphasis this, when she notices that she must make dinner, I turn it into a passive sentence and say that "dinner must be made." In doing this, I take emphasis away from her, and give it a feel that she is going through the motions as opposed to consciously doing anything.

I'd love to hear your comments about times you have found a quick passive sentence or two has helped set the tone for your scene. Or tell me about a success story of making a scene more vivid and real by turning a few passive lines into active ones.

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