One of the most common issues I have come across while beta reading is the use of passive voice in places it shouldn’t be. While writing in passive voice comes somewhat naturally, this style can create sentences that are wordy and unclear. Stories that are meant to draw your reader in can quickly deter their attention when passive voice is present– this is a writer’s biggest nightmare.
But what is passive voice? And how can you catch yourself using it before your story is riddled in passive prose?
Let’s start out with the basics:
Passive voice focuses on the person or thing receiving the action. It’s generally used when you don’t know who is doing the action and includes a “to be” verb with another verb following it. Active voice focuses on the person or thing doing the action; it’s more direct and more concise. In fiction writing, using active voice is always a better choice if you’re looking for your reader to become lost in the story.
Check out the difference below, with (P) standing for passive voice and (A) for active voice:
P: Ben, the man flirting with Jeff's girlfriend, was slugged by Jeff. A: Jeff slugged Ben, the man flirting with his girlfriend. P: A knife was held to Jeff's throat by Tina. A: Tina held a knife to Jeff's throat. P: The door was opened by the sheriff, and the gun was drawn by him. A: The sheriff opened the door and drew his gun.
Which style draws you in?
Active voice is excellent for fast-moving scenes and intense moments. It’s also kind of like the word “said”: readers are used to it, so they generally don’t notice when it’s used. Passive voice sticks out a bit more, kind of like using “growled” or “shouted” in dialogue. Sure, it’s fine every now and then, and often critical to a story. But if you use it all the time, it becomes too much for your poor reader to fight through:
P: Ben was hated by Jeff, and Jeff was hated by Ben. Tina was also hated by Jeff. Jeff and Carrie were hated by Tina. Everyone was loved by Carrie. A: Jeff hated Ben, and Ben hated Jeff. Jeff also hated Tina. Tina hated Jeff and Carrie. Carrie loved everyone
So when do you use passive voice? Passive voice is helpful when you don’t know who the subject of the sentence is. This is especially important in mystery writing when the reader is unclear of who has committed a crime:
P: The house was broken into around midnight. The camera sensor was triggered, and the neighbor heard glass breaking. The television, laptop, and jewelry were stolen, and the furniture was ripped apart. Finally, Jeff Stone was murdered. Time of death was around midnight. A: Someone broke into the house around midnight. Someone triggered the camera sensor, and the neighbor heard glass breaking. Someone stole the television, laptop, and jewelry, and someone ripped the furniture apart. Finally, someone murdered Jeff Stone. Time of death was around midnight.
Passive voice can also be used when you want to put emphasis on the recipient of the action:
P: As for suspects: Tina was seen leaving the house earlier by the neighbor. Ben was accused by his girlfriend of sleeping with Jeff's girlfriend, Carrie. Carrie has been seen with several other men, and she was even caught in bed with one of them. A: As for suspects: A neighbor saw Tina leaving the house earlier. Ben's girlfriend accused him of sleeping with Jeff's girlfriend, Carrie. Someone has seen Carrie with several other men, and someone caught her in bed with one of them.
Pop quiz! What voice is correct for this example:
P: Carrie and Ben were caught in bed together by Tina. A: Tina caught Carrie and Ben in bed together.
Answer: both! Both passive and active writing work just fine here until you choose who you want to focus on: Carrie and Ben or Tina?
Finally, let’s talk about the Zombie Test. If you’re truly unsure of when you’re using active or passive voice, try adding “by zombies” after the verb. If adding “by zombies” makes sense, you’ve got a passive sentence. Jeff was murdered (by zombies) is a passive sentence. Tina murdered Jeff (by zombies) is an active sentence.
If you want to try out a fun website, check out: https://datayze.com/passive-voice-detector. You can input your text and run a passive/active test on your writing to catch those pesky passive statements. Please note: this is a fun tool, but it won’t find all passive voice sentences. Don’t skip finding an editor for your work!
Now make sure to go write some good stories (A) / Make sure some good stories are written by you! (P)
About the Writer: Kristin Cragg resides in SoCal with her husband, two kids, and cats, and always looks for the humor in the many genres in which she writes. When not parenting, she can be found nose deep in a book, working on her Etsy business, or volunteering at church.