Updated: Oct 17, 2020
One of the ongoing raging debates in fiction writing is about whether to use passive voice. The general rule is to not use it, opting for more active sentences that make your prose tighter and more vivid. And there is certainly plenty of merit in that attitude, but, as with most writing ‘rules’, it’s not about an outright banishment of any given technique (though it is neither about wantonly goading the apparent ‘rule’ makers into an apoplectic fit with narrative littered in passive sentence structures). There are times when only passive voice will do.
For the uninitiated, let’s just have a quick run through as to what passive voice looks like compared to its active counterparts (if you understand the concept of passive voice, scroll down to the part where I talk about its effect on storytelling) *Throughout this article, passive sentences are highlighted in bold.*
Active: The dog caught the ball
Passive: The ball was caught by the dog
As you can see, the dog is the subject of the active sentence and the ball is the object. In the passive sentence, the ball is mentioned first, but it remains the object (because it’s still the ball receiving the action from the verb.)
Many people identify a passive sentence by the use of 'was' but, in reality, the word 'by' is probably a more suitable flag of when the passive is in use. Passive voice can be rather sneaky and appear where you don't even realise it. The general rule of thumb: if there is an implied party who carried out the action it is written in the passive. Often, though not exclusively, it is accompanied by some sort of conjugation of the verb to be.
It was caught just in time (by the doctors.)
It was written by the legendary author Hannery Flanagan
In the first sentence, it is not necessary to include the parenthetical information – that information would be implied by the context surrounding it that the person had been ill.
Let’s just flip it around into active voice, so you get the hang of it:
The doctors caught it just in time.
(The legendary author) Hannery Flanagan wrote it.
So, if you can add in 'by' someone, then it is likely written in the passive. Also, it is a common mistake to assume that using the word ‘was’ automatically makes a sentence passive. It does not.
It was a beautiful day.
He was walking in the garden. (There is no implied party involved in the action -- 'he' is the subject carrying out the action, therefore it is not passive.)
If you wish to avoid writing in passive, look to place your subject before the object in a sentence. However, constructing all your sentences in this way would become more than tiresome, and there are times when passive voice creates a more specific effect.
Something watched them
Someone watched them
They were being watched. (by something or one.)
Using someone or something asserts a specific culprit of the action to the sentence. But, what if you don’t want the reader to know if it’s a someone or a something? Maybe you want to leave it more ambiguous. Maybe you don't want to give away the plot twist that it’s not actually a human but some kind of other worldly creature, or maybe you want to give the impression it could be something other worldly but turns out it’s the narrator’s over-active imagination. By using the passive voice, it leaves more uncertainty. It also feels as if they are more victimised by whatever is watching them – the emphasis is on the action of the watching, not upon whom is performing it. They were being watched doesn’t define the watcher into anything concrete, and it feels more threatening, more open to speculation. More ominous.
This next example is rather gruesome, but demonstrates the same thing (Please note, no animals were harmed in the making of this paragraph.)
The dog was pinned to the tree across the road. A terrier, the nail driven through its neck, head slumped to the side, a trail of red blood dripping down the golden fur. Its collar had been removed; Mary had received it through the letterbox that morning.
Now, I don’t care what any active sentence supporters say, using passive voice here makes this paragraph sound much more threatening than using its active counterpart:
Someone had pinned a dog to the tree across the road.
Even though a dog pinned to a tree sounds dodgy in all circumstances, this form of the sentence sounds more casual, as if the action has been taken by a passer-by. The passive version sets a darker tone, I think, and concentrates more focus on the fact there is a dog in a tree than focusing on whoever pinned it there in the first place. That's where we want the narrative focus planted -- on the bloody vision of the poor dog.
Also, in this instance, we want the implication that the dog has been maimed by someone else without yet applying any kind of identity to the culprit. The invisible use of ‘by’ that intrinsically comes hard wired with the use of passive voice sets the idea in the reader’s head that there is a perpetrator. By not identifying that perpetrator, even slightly or abstractly, it keys into our deeper fears – being watched and terrorised by an unknown, unaccountable and unpredictable malevolent force beyond our knowledge and control. And aside from anything else, the active version is more wordy, and the syllables seem too many, making it unnecessarily choppy without conveying extra pertinent info. The passive version flows more naturally.
Ditto for: its collar had been removed
Here is a good example of where active voice works and passive voice wouldn't do so well:
Mary had received it through the letterbox that morning.
It had been received by Mary in the letterbox that morning.
More examples of when passive sentences work better than active ones:
All the curtains in the front windows were (had been) drawn, In this instance, the story’s protagonist is approaching the property in question, but she doesn’t know who drew the curtains. Yes, we could say ‘someone had drawn the curtains’, but using ‘someone’ all the time in order to avoid passive voice is just ridiculous and OTT.
Established since 1764, the business bestowed upon Bill not only an impressive heritage but, unfortunately, also a four-generation culture of gripes and complaints.
We don’t need to know who established the business – that would be extraneous information. To add ‘by his great, great grandfather and his cohorts John Mason and Phillip Conrad’ would make it too wordy, and unless the family history is something you need to go into in relation to the plot, likely unnecessary.
Active voice can sometimes sound too confrontational or forceful. Passive voice can act more diplomatically, especially when it comes to a sentence that might assign blame:
The money has been used; there’s no going back now.
You used the money; there’s no going back now.
You can't change what you said, but let’s move on
We can't change what was said, but let’s move on
I tried calling, but you didn't answer
I tried calling, but there was no answer
Or, passive voice can be much more sly and imply subtext, which in turn creates narrative tension:
Had they been more welcomed, they would have stayed longer
If she had welcomed them more, they would have stayed longer.
Now, these two seem so close, yet you could imagine a polite host using the former to make a controversial point in a diplomatic way, or maybe even to have a bit of a dig at someone without overtly accusing them of being rude. This could be a subtlety that builds in tension as the story progresses. The active form is much more accusatory and confrontational by naming the guilty party -- maybe it's a style that would be more suited to later in the narrative to show those tensions are rising uncontrollably to the surface, that politeness is suspended and blame is beginning to fly.
Passive voice in relation to emotions:
They didn’t impress him
He wasn’t impressed (by them)
To me, the latter puts the emphasis on the main verb impressed and lends a sense of how ‘he’ was feeling that the active version doesn’t convey.
Keeping information minimal:
Once hot water became available, Stella took showers every day.
Another instance where the extra information is not necessary. The chapter has already established that the characters live in a squat and had to find alternative means of washing until the mains services were connected. How that came about has already been covered, so to add in by Malo nicking a valve key from the water board is just repeating information to the reader. Pointless. Another alternative might be to say: Once Malo had connected the water but I’m trying to reduce the number of times I use the character’s name, so it really isn’t worth the pedantry.
So, there we are. Many reasons when you should use passive voice, and in its most basic conceptual form it's about where the author wishes to place the focus in a sentence. It's still worth remembering, though, to use it only when it is a better alternative to active sentences, and when kept as the minority style.
Can you think of any more instances when passive voice is preferable?