What do we mean by the terms passive and active? How important are they for writing fiction and should we only use one and not the other?
Some people argue that there is nothing wrong with using passive fiction - they tend to think of those writers who disagree with this are purists, but there is a huge difference between using passive fiction deliberately within your writing, for effect, to using it all the while in the misconstrued belief that it actually helps the writing, when in reality, it actually does the opposite.
Any worthy editor will always advise against passive writing for a very good reason, and that’s because passive sentence structures weaken the writing considerably. It just doesn’t connect with the ear when you read a passive sentence, nor does it look right. And that’s because it isn’t.
In truth, passive writing is frowned upon, but it can sometimes have its place, and is most often used in academic writing and teaching, however, your creative should always be active.
What is meant by active voice?
‘Active’ refers to the subject of the sentence doing the action, so in an active sentence, the subject is doing the action to the object, and almost always relies on a strong verb to do so, for example:
‘Jane loved the flowers.’
In this case, Jane is the subject doing the action to the object: she loves the flowers and the verb 'loved' is the correct form (used with an object). It’s a perfectly clear sentence.
What is passive voice?
Passive voice refers to the subject receiving the action instead of doing it, so if we take the example above, the passive sentence would look like this:
The flowers were loved by Jane.
This doesn’t just look wrong, it reads incorrectly, too. The object of the sentence (flowers) is made into the subject and the real subject (Jane) is relegated within the sentence so that it’s is rendered clunky by the passive voice. The appearance of ‘were’ is a giveaway to passive writing, as is the use of ‘was’.
Take a look at these samples to see the difference between active and passive; the strong and weak sentences and how they change the way they are read and understood:
The girl was startled by the noise - Passive.
The noise started the girl – Active
The cheese was grated by the chef - Passive
The chef grated the cheese – Active
The man was walked by the Alsatian - Passive
The man walked his Alsatian - active
The use of ‘was’ clearly weakens the sentences, forcing them to become passive when they are much better as strong, active sentences. That’s because the subject is being forced to receive the action rather than to give it.
When writing, try to avoid the use of ‘was’ or sentence structures with ‘by’, as shown in the example above of the man being walked by the Alsatian, as these almost always make the writing passive.
But why is it so important to avoid passive fiction writing?
Firstly, readers prefer their fiction to be active, not passive. In other words, passive sentences don’t allow any immediacy. Also, they don’t create tight sentence structures, either, which are more desirable than long passive sentences. Look at this example and you’ll see why:
The car was brought to a halt outside the library and Jane got out with her books. The cookery books were enjoyed by Jane and she appreciated improving her knowledge, especially as the moussaka was attempted for the first time and a complete success with the family.
The entire paragraph is written passively, so there is little connection or immediacy and the sentences just look so clunky, which means they are not pleasing to the eye, nor are they clear to the reader. Now read the same paragraph, with an active voice:
Jane brought the car to a halt outside the library got out with her books. She had enjoyed the cookery books and knew they had improved her knowledge, especially when she attempted moussaka for the first time and it proved a complete success with the family.
The sentences are different, more concise. They look different and read differently and because they are active, there is no unwieldy feel to them. Active verbs are stronger and more efficient. Active voice always creates immediacy. Passive writing kills it.
For these reasons, active writing is very important and should always be the aim for any writer. If you see too much use of ‘was’ or ‘were’, go over the work and see where it can be improved. Root out instances of passive writing. Keep it strong, active and clear.
Next week: Creating dilemmas in fiction