Understanding Passive Voice
Passive Voice and Its Flaws
Passive voice is a common problem in beginning writing. But the problem is not limited to beginners. Even advanced writers can have a difficult time identifying and eliminating passive voice in their writing.
Why should you bother with eliminating passive voice?
Passive voice is not inherently evil. Nothing in writing is, really. But there is a proper time and purpose for it.
What is passive voice?
Obviously, the first thing that you need to understand with passive voice is how to recognize it.
Essentially, passive voice is putting the subject of the sentence at the end of the sentence (or after the verb). A quick test is if you're using the word "by" to identify who is doing the verb's action.
Passive voice is very easy to recognize if you use this little trick: add "by fairies" to the end of your sentence. If it works, then it’s passive. If it doesn’t, then it’s active.
The candle was lit*.
Ava lit* the candle.
They were lighting* the candle.
The candle was being lit*.
If we apply our test here, we could add "by fairies" after the verbs marked with * and get this:
The candle was lit* by fairies.
Ava lit* by fairies the candle.
They were lighting* by fairies the candle.
The candle was being lit* by fairies.
Doing so makes it rather clear that sentences 1 and 4 are passive sentences because adding "by fairies" to the sentences still provides us with a comprehensible sentence. Sentences 2 and 3 become garbled by adding "by fairies," which suggests that they are in active voice and not passive voice.
This simple test is one you can do in your head to a sentence to double check that you're writing in the active voice.
When is passive voice acceptable?
In probably 9 out of 10 sentences, active voice should be used because active voice puts the focus on who is performing the action in the sentence. Passive voice, by contrast, puts the focus of the sentence on the recipient of the action. Stories are about a collection of actions, and we read to be put into the head of those doing the action. So by putting us into an active sentence whether through first or third person point of view, we are more likely to connect with the action and the characters themselves.
However, there might be times when you want the focus of your sentence to avoid mentioning who performs the action.
e.g. The telephone call that told Charlie of Abe's death was made late that night.
Maybe whoever informs Charlie about Abe's death isn't important. Maybe we don't care who told him. But maybe we do.
e.g. Luke made the call to tell Charlie of Abe's death late that night.
In this example, we know it was Luke who called and told of Abe's death. Perhaps that's important to the story. Perhaps we know Luke and care that he's the one who knew first. But if we don't, if it's a nameless character that doesn't bear any weight except in delivering this message to Charlie, then we could get by with a passive sentence here.
True, it wouldn't hurt to say it's a doctor calling or a friend calling, which would look like this:
e.g. Charlie's friend made the call to tell Charlie of Abe's death late that night.
e.g. The doctor made the call to tell Charlie of Abe's death late that night.
Does it matter? Maybe. But that's up to the author and editor to determine in context.
So next time you wonder if you just wrote a passive sentence, add "by fairies" after the verb. If it's a passive sentence, ask yourself if the focus is in the right place for your story. If it isn't, change it to an active sentence. If it is, leave it be!