I don’t know if a writer exists who hasn’t heard the phrase “show it, don’t tell it!” Just in case one exists, I will tell you that it means that it is important to let the characters do the doing rather than allowing the narrator to tell what happens. One of the principle ways that we can show rather than tell is to write our scenes using active rather than passive voice.
The difference between Active Voice and Passive Voice
In English grammar, verbs have five properties: voice, mood, tense, person, and number; here, we are concerned with voice. The two grammatical voices are active and passive.
Active voice basically refers to a sentence that has a subject that acts upon its verb. We’ll explain this in a minute.
Passive voice, on the other hand, means that a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action. You may have learned that the passive voice is weak and incorrect, but it isn’t that simple as we will see later in this article. When used correctly and in moderation, the passive voice is fine. However, you’ll do well to eliminate most of the passive voice in your novel.
Identifying Active Voice
When the subject of a sentence performs the verb’s action, we say that the sentence is in the active voice. Sentences in the active voice have a strong, direct, and clear tone. Here is an example:
The cat ate her food.
This sentence has a basic active voice construction: subject, verb, and (sometimes) an object. The subject “cat” performs the action described by at. The subject performs the action described by closed. The subjects are always doing. They take action.
What is Passive Voice?
A sentence is in the passive voice, on the other hand, when the subject is acted on by the verb. The passive voice is always constructed with a conjugated form of to be plus the verb’s past participle. Doing this usually generates a preposition as well. That sounds much more complicated than it is, because passivity is actually quite easy to detect. For these next examples of passive voice, we will transform the three active sentences above to illustrate the difference.
“The cat played with the yarn.” is active voice, but “The food was eaten by the cat.” is passive voice.
The active sentence consists of the subject, the verb and the object. The passive sentence consists of the object plus a form of to be plus the past participle of the verb and a preposition in each of these cases “by” Making the sentence passive flipped the structure and necessitated the preposition “by”.
Which Is Better? Active Voice or Passive Voice?
There is no question that using the active voice conveys the stronger, clearer tone. Here’s some good advice: don’t use the passive voice just because you think it sounds more sophisticated than the active voice.
However, times do exist when the passive voice is preferred. For instance, Their car was hit by a train. That sentence construction is helpful because their car is the focus of the writing, not the train.
A good rule of thumb is to try to put the majority of your sentences in the active voice. This is especially true action-packed novels.
Tips to Recognize the Passive Voice
Sometimes a sentence in passive voice doesn’t necessarily sound “wrong” or wordy. Sometimes passive voice is the best choice. However, consider writing in active voice whenever possible.
Recognizing Passive Voice
To recognize that a sentence is in passive voice, watch out for these keywords:
How to Change Voice from Passive to Active
To change passive voice to active voice, you need to recognize the sentence’s subject and then rewrite the sentence, so the subject is performing the action.
Let’s use the following example to understand how to change passive voice to active voice:
The repairs were made by the best carpenter in town.
We can recognize that this sentence is in passive voice because the passive keyword “was” is used. Also, it’s not initially clear who or what the sentence is about.
To change the sentence from passive to active:
Step 1: Identify the subject of the sentence – who is doing an action? The payment is not doing the action, so it can’t be the subject. The only person or thing doing an action here is everyone. Everyone paid. So, everyone is the subject of the sentence.
Step 2- Rewrite the sentence so the subject is performing the action. This sentence could be rewritten to active voice as follows:
The best carpenter in town made the repairs.
This rewrite makes it immediately clear to the reader who is doing what. The subject is doing the action.
When Using Passive Voice May Be the Better Choice
In most cases, writing sentences in passive voice is discouraged, because it can obscure the subject of the sentence and confuse the reader. It also creates a wordy and awkward sentence structure.
As suggested above, use passive voice when a paragraph actually flows better using passive voice rather than active voice. However, if you can express the same idea using an active verb, you should do so. In the same token, don’t mix active and passive structures in the same sentence. If one clause is in the passive voice, the other, too, should also be in the passive voice. Once you learn how to change passive voice to active voice, it’s one less thing you’ll have to edit. However, there are cases when passive voice is preferred.
The passive voice is used when we want to draw attention to the person or thing that was affected by the action of the subject.
For instance, if someone were to ask, “Who killed that bear?” The answer would be “That bear was killed by Robert.”
Here the focus is on a specific bear.
In addition, the passive voice is also preferred in cases where the doer is not important.
The log homes were built around 1800.
Here the focus is on the log homes and not on the person(s) who built them, and therefore we prefer the passive voice.
Practice Changing Passive to Active Voice
Although passive voice is occasionally useful and sometimes preferred because it offers a deflection from knowing the subject of the sentence, passive-voice verbs put the emphasis on the recipient of the action, not the doer of the action. This kind of deflection can sometimes be useful, but strong sentences require active constructions. Passive-voice sentences are also wordier than more concise active voice versions. Therefore, unless you have a specific reason for using passive voice, always convert such verb constructions into active ones.
Get Your Copy of The Comprehensive Novel Editing Checklist
If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.
FREE EDITING CHECKLIST WITH SUBSCRIPTION TO THIS BLOG