This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.
One of the rules hardcore grammar enthusiasts preach all of the time is that the passive voice should be eliminated when writing. Though one of the joys of writing fiction is the ability to play with language and break the rules when possible, I’m a firm believer in deploying active voice over passive voice in most circumstances.
Using an active structure is preferable to a passive structure in most situations for one primary reason: active voice reads with much more agency for your characters. While using active voice, your character does something rather than having something done to him or her, in other words. There’s a strength in that development-wise, but also linguistically.
Employing active voice isn’t always enough to salvage a sloppy sentence, however. Below, we’ll also explore how precise word choice can do wonders for otherwise uninspired prose.
Let’s hop right in.
So What Is Passive Voice?
Right. That’s probably worth clearing up as a starting point. I’ll be getting a little grammar-y here, so if parts of speech aren’t your strong point, you may want to brush up on them before reading on.
Passive voice is a sentential structure wherein the direct object of the verb becomes “fronted” in the left-to-right arrangement of words. This shifts the focus from the sentence’s subject (more often than not, your character), and onto the object with which they are directly involved. Take the sentences below as examples.
PASSIVE: The truck was driven (by Larry).
ACTIVE: Larry drove the truck.
In the examples above, “truck” is the direct object of the verb “to drive” (it is the thing the subject directly affects via his action). The passive sentence fronts “truck,” placing it in the spotlight. The active sentence, on the other hand, puts Larry in the (literal) driver’s seat.
In fact, the passive sentence would read just as grammatically if “by Larry” were removed from it completely. That’s the reason why I included it in parentheses. In fiction, your characters need to be present and active. How well do you think they can do either if their inclusion in a sentence is optional?
Okay, but so what? Both sentences communicate the same information.
Good one. You’re not wrong, but when it comes to writing, it isn’t about content alone. It’s about presentation, too. As I’ve shown in previous posts, agents and publishers can love your premise all day, but if the execution isn’t there, well, neither is your book deal. Active voice is one way to make sure your manuscript stays character-focused, not direct-object-focused.
Using a new set of examples, let’s see how much stronger we can take some casually strewn together passive voice sentences.
1) The apple was eaten quickly by Carlos.
2) The business was efficiently run by Evelyn.
3) The sheep were shepherded through the gate by the sheepdogs.
Though all three of these are simple declaratives (and hard “tells”), I’m confident that with some active voice and a little additional tweaking, we can make them “pop” that much more.
Let’s start by making each of these active. We’ll take the contents of the “by…” clauses and front them in the sentences, giving those characters the agency they deserve.
1) Carlos ate the apple quickly.
2) Evelyn ran the business efficiently.
3) The sheepdogs shepherded the sheep through the gate.
With a simple rearrangement of words (and changing the verb from its participle form to its regular past-tense form), we’ve refocused readers’ attention on the characters in question.
Yeah, but both of those sentences are still pretty wretched.
That’s true–the passive-to-active shift alone hasn’t left us with any award-winning content. Active voice by itself often isn’t enough to really supercharge your sentences. Let’s inject a little more pep into each one, taking them one at a time.
For “Carlos ate the apple quickly,” we have a pretty straightforward scenario. One way to improve this sentence would be to tighten up the action even further. There are at least two ways to do this that come to mind off the top of my head. The first is to replace the adverb “quickly” with something a little more descriptive and precise. The second has to do with the actual verb choice: “to eat.”
Let’s toy with this sentence, keeping in mind the first point only.
1) Carlos ate the apple in record time.
Oh, hey. Cool. A new record! That’s great. But what image comes to mind when you think of someone setting an apple-eating-for-time record? Is it of someone just munching their way to the core all methodical-like, or is apple juice streaming down their cheeks and covering their hands once they’re done?
Sure, we could write a version of the sentence that includes all those details, but let’s see if we can capture some of that magic by tweaking the verb alone.
1) Carlos devoured the apple in record time.
DEVOURED. Bam. A verb like “devoured” certainly implies speed or ravenousness, hopefully bringing to mind some of the images described above as well. Imagine how much differently the sentence would read if instead of “devoured” we had used “chewed through,” “consumed,” or “ingested.” Very different feels, right? After eliminating passive voice, focusing on verb precision is the next great step in beefing up your prose.
Using what we covered in 1), let’s work on 2): Evelyn ran the business efficiently.
Again, we have an adverb we can do away with.
2) Evelyn, an efficiency fanatic, ran the business.
Alright, so maybe this new sentence doesn’t read with exactly the same meaning, but I would argue that most readers would take the above to mean that, given her propensity for efficiency, Evelyn runs the business in an efficient manner.
Still though, I think we can do better. Let’s focus on the verb this time, aiming for a more precise replacement for “ran.”
2) Evelyn, an efficiency fanatic, managed the business.
Though improved, this is still a little lackluster in my opinion. Let’s apply the same precision principle to “the business,” the only remaining original noun in the sentence aside from “Evelyn.”
2) Evelyn, an efficiency fanatic, managed the plant’s operations.
Would you look at that? Rather than do a word-for-word substitution, I conjured a more precise image for the reader by specifying that the business was a plant of some kind, and reinforced the need for efficiency by throwing in the word “operations.” The above sentence sure has come a long way from “The business was run by Evelyn,” am I right?
Sentence number 3) in our active set could benefit from a facelift for a number of reasons. I’ve provided the original version again below, so there’s no need to scroll back to find it.
3) The sheepdogs shepherded the sheep through the gate.
This sentence actually makes use of a fair number of specific nouns and verbs. Instead of “animals,” it specifies “sheep.” Instead of using a verb like “followed,” it makes use of a stronger, active verb, “shepherded.” The primary concern I have with this sentence is that it uses a lot of words with the same root (sheepdog, sheep, shepherd).
The above is meant to illustrate that though specificity is fantastic, too much of it can become repetitive and distracting. It’s also easier to fall into “tells,” but we’ll save the show versus tell phenomenon for another post. For now, let’s see what can be done by toying with this sentence a bit, all the while trying to keep some of the same images in mind.
3) The sheepdogs herded the flock across the ranch.
Keeping “sheepdogs” still calls to mind a specific kind of dog, removing “shep” from “shepherded” maintains the same basic meaning, and changing “sheep” to “flock” still speaks to the plural nature of the beasts the dogs are herding. Additionally, we know (or can reasonably guess) that the flock consists of sheep since sheepdogs are the ones doing the corralling.
In addition to those substitutions, changing “through the gate” to “across the ranch” also grants more specificity to the location where the herding is taking place. Again, we’ve come a long way from “The sheep were shepherded through the gate by the sheepdogs.”
What does this all mean?
It means nothing if you don’t put the tools of active voice and specificity to use. As I’ve illustrated above, making both of these tools work for you can give a hideous sentence the facelift it needs to be brought into the light of day.
Of course, there are occasions on which you may want to emphasize the direct object over the subject. Maybe you’re writing with a more casual tone (similar to this blog), and passive voice suits you better. Great! Then certainly go for it. It’s also not uncommon for you us humans to use passive voice in everyday speech. Have your characters make use of it in their dialogue, then.
Aside from those scenarios, there are a few other situations in which the passive voice can pay off, but I still strive to use the active voice whenever possible. It’s beyond a doubt strengthened my writing, and I’m sure it can do the same for yours.
Have more thoughts on active voice and specificity? Get active on Twitter, or shoot me the specifics through my contact page.