*This article might read a little rough around the edges -- I ran out of editing time in order to post it this Sunday plus a huge migraine yesterday didn't help! Apologies in advance*
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 story telling) *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, it is the ball that is the subject but the dog does not become the object (because the dog does not receive the action. It’s still the ball receiving the action from the verb. Do you get me?)
The general rule of thumb when it comes to passive voice is that it is packaged with its own built-in implication that some un-named entity carried out the action, which may or may not be silent – by xxx – and is often, though not exclusively, accompanied by some sort of conjugation of the verb to be. Watch out, though – many people get confused with this and mistakenly make the assumption that using the word ‘was’ automatically makes a sentence passive. It does not.
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.
Let’s just flip it around into active voice, so you get the hang of it:
They (the doctors) caught it just in time.
The legendary author Hannery Flanagan wrote it.
So, 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.
Using someone or something lends the sentence a specific culprit of the action. 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 and without giving 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 it 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.
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 letter box 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 on whomever pinned it there. In this instance, we want the implication the bird has been maimed by someone else without yet lending the culprit with any kind of identity. 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.
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. The ‘by his great, great grandfather and his cohorts John Mason and Phillip Conrad’ doesn’t need to be added into this sentence. It 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/you 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, whereas the active form is much more accusatory and confrontational - maybe a style that would be more suited to later in the narrative, to show those tensions are rising uncontrollably to the surface and politeness is suspended.
They didn’t impress him
He wasn’t impressed (by them)
To me, the latter puts the emphasis on the main verb, probably because it’s a less complex sentence. But it also lends a sense of how ‘he’ was feeling that the active version doesn’t convey.
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?