You may have heard ‘passive’ and ‘active’ voice mentioned in previous articles, or seen something written about them online and wondered if they are really that important in fiction writing, especially with the emerging consensus among self-published writers they can ‘write what they like’. Of course they can write what they like. It’s just most of it isn’t worth reading.
So what is passive and active voice? Is it really that important?
When we talk about active or passive voice, it means that the verb is either active or passive. For instance:
John answered the door = active sentence.
The door was answered by John = passive sentence.
The first example is active because the subject and verb is in the correct sequence. In active sentences, something that is doing the action is the subject of the sentence. The thing receiving the action is the object.
Therefore in the above sentence, John is the subject. ‘Answered’ becomes a verb because it is the action being used with an object. The object is the door.
Subject – Verb – Object = Active.
In the passive sentence, the subject of the sentence has the action done to it by someone or something, or the object.
So, in the above example, the object is the door. The verb ‘answered’ is the action and the subject is John.
Object – Verb – Subject = Passive.
In the grand scheme of things, passive and active voice is very important to understand for any writer. It’s essential to show the story and your characters with an active voice rather than a passive one, especially when this has a direct relationship to the tenses, either making them active or passive tenses.
Passive voice examples:-The plant was watered by John.
The eggs were beaten by the chef.
The phone was answered by Jane.
The number was memorised by Pete.
While not entirely grammatically incorrect, the way the sentences are structured leaves them weakened and clunky compared to today’s modern tastes and desire for the active voice. (Trends come and go in fiction writing, but on the whole some of them get consigned to the bin for very good reasons. Passive voice in fiction is one of them).
If those examples had been active tenses – dynamic in nature and more immediate than passive ones – they would be like this:
John watered the plant.
The chef beat the eggs.
Jane answered the phone.
Pete memorised the number.
You can see from these examples that the focus of the action is sharpened by the switch from passive to active and making sure the subject is doing the action. There is no doubt which voice is better.
Why Use Active Voice?
In the past – the last 200 years especially – there was a trend to use passive voice in literature, however, over the last 50 – 60 years, modern readers enjoy the active voice, the immediacy and instant connection it creates, giving them the feeling they are right in the thick of the action. The active voice keeps the narrative from wandering into passive territory.
Passive voice does the opposite - it slows the pace of a sentence, it stifles immediacy and makes it difficult for the reader to feel that immediacy. It will prove hard for the reader to become involved with the story, and that is precisely what you want for your reader; you absolutely want them involved, right from the very first page.
Passive voice also adds more unnecessary words to the sentence, and more often than not it relies heavily on the word ‘was’. This is a word to watch out for because it often makes sentences ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. And passive sentences are all ‘telling.’
So where creative fiction is concerned, writers should keep the voice active.
So, is it really THAT important?
In a nutshell? Yes, it is. It’s the difference between writing quality fiction and writing utter crap.
Next week: Are plots really all the same?