Passive and Active Voice

“There’s too much passive voice here.”

This used to pop up a lot in critiques of my novels. Heh, it still probably does in some situations. At first, I thought it was a nail in the coffin, but it isn’t. There’s a time and place for everything.

So what is passive voice, anyway? It’s when the subject of the sentence is the recipient of an action. Here are quick examples of passive and active voice.

Passive: They were told by the security guard that the store was closed.

Active: The security guard told them that the store was closed.

They are the subject in the sentence, but they’re not doing anything. They’re literally passive in that sentence. They’re being acted upon.

I think the biggest problem people find with passive voice is that it’s really wordy, and it slows down pacing. Some might even say the scene could be boring because of passive voice.

In action scenes, you want to be there with the protagonist. You’d want to feel how intense it is for the characters, but if it’s written passively, well… It’s boring.

Passive: Blood was soaking their sleeve from the downward arc of a blade.

Active: The blade slid across their arm, blood soaking their sleeve.

Another problem with passive voice is that it’s kind of backwards than we naturally think. If you were thinking about the way they mistreated your friend at the bar, you wouldn’t think…

“Her butt was grabbed by that creep.”

But probably more along the lines of…

“That creep just grabbed her butt!”

But there’s always a time and place for it, too. If you’re looking to set the mood for a lazy day, a passive voice would be fine. There isn’t any action, nothing tense is happening, and I’m relaxed with the character.

But if we’re building suspense of a heroine walking into a mansion that’s inhabited by a psychotic person, I want my readers to feel tense.

A lot of writers identify passive voice with “was” and “to be” in their sentences. Some even go so far as to never use those words in their novel. But here’s the something else to keep in mind. Sometimes a sentence won’t make sense without the word “was.”  My advice: use a text to speech program and listen to how the sentence sounds. Your ear will let you know if something’s funny.

Do you have any tips for turning that passive sentence into an active one?

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