Before I start, I’d like to make the disclaimer that passive voice is not, in fact, the devil despite what some may say. In some instances, it is 100% appropriate and even prefered. But typically, it is not as preferred as active in the context of fiction writing. It is up to you, the writer, to decide what verbiage you want to use. If you aren’t sure about it, consult beta readers or hire an editor. They’ll tell you if there’s a problem with your voice and hopefully how to address it. Whatever you choose, just start by writing a good story. The rest will work itself out (hopefully).
Now then, if you’re writing fiction (or even nonfiction), chances are that you’ve heard someone reference the difference between passive and active voice. If not, keep reading – this is important. Agents and Editors typically always prefer that authors write books in active voice. Why is that? The voice of your book sets the tone and pace, and it can either make the reader feel completely involved IN the action or separated FROM the action. So what’s the difference, and how can you tell?
First off, let’s start with some examples of sentences written in passive voice.
- “Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims.”
- “The trees were planted by August.”
- “The first mass-marketed lightbulb was invented by Thomas Edison.”
- “The phone was answered by Alice.”
- “The football was thrown by Laura as the defensive line closed in around her.”
Passive voice usually involves some form of the word “is” or “has.” The information here is delivered in a way that keeps the reader from feeling connected to the action, because the direct object of the verb (Plymouth Colony, woods, lightbulb, Alice, football) becomes the subject of the sentence instead of the object that’s actually doing the action. You’re being told by the writer about something that has happened, but you don’t feel connected to the action. In other words, you are a bystander.
So how do we change these passive voice sentences to active voice?
- The Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.
- August planted the trees.
- Thomas Edison invented the first mass-marketed lightbulb.
- Alice answered the phone.
- Laura threw the football as the defensive line closed in around her.
We have removed the passive words (“was,” in this case) and flipped the sentence around so that the subject of our sentence is who or what is actually doing the action. You immediately feel more connected to the subject, because you’re not being pulled out of the action. No longer are you *telling* the reader about something. You’re showing them.
You may be thinking that those sentences look so short and choppy, and they do! That’s where you, as the author, add in your descriptions. And don’t be afraid to change up your sentence structure. It gets very redundant for readers to see the same “noun verb” sequence in every sentence, so mix it up. Instead of “Laura threw the football as the defensive line closed in around her,” try “As the defensive line closed in around her, Laura threw the football.” It’s the same exact information, but the description has been moved to the beginning of the sentence to break up what could be another monotonous “noun verb” sentence. Just make sure to keep it active.
So, there you have it. This is by no means a conclusive breakdown of the differences between active and passive voice, but it will hopefully help developing writers (aren’t we all) figure out how to make their voice more active so that readers feel more engaged in the action. For a more detailed analysis, you can go here. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!