Whether in a screenplay, poem, or short story, the voice of the writer often translates to the voice of your story. Depending on the situation, passive voice may suit a writer better than active voice, or perhaps the other way around. But how can you tell when to use one over the other? Keep reading for tips on how to spot the difference between active voice and passive voice, and suggestions for how to use them.
Active & Passive Voice in Practice
What is a passive voice vs active voice
Active voice occurs when the subject of the sentence performs the action. Passive voice occurs when the subject is receiving the action. These scenarios may sound similar, but a few key changes can help distinguish the two.
ACTIVE VOICE DEFINITION
What is Active Voice?
The subject performs the action.
Batman hunts the Joker.
Remy controls Linguini.
Marty McFly travels back in time.
PASSIVE VOICE DEFINITION
What is Passive Voice?
The subject receives the action.
The Joker is hunted by Batman.
Linguini is controlled by Remy.
Marty McFly is sent back in time.
When to use active voice
Most sentence structures are built around the subject in the sense that the subject is the most important part of the action. When the priority of the sentence is to explain action in the most detailed way, we can include the subject who completes the action, the verb which denotes the action, and the object which is receiving the action.
Not only does active voice give a complete depiction of unfolding events, but it can actually give your writing the feeling of vivacity and energy rather than docility and submissiveness.
Active voice can be used in multiple scenarios.
- When you want your character to deliberately engage in an action: Remy controls Linguini.
- Scene descriptions: The sun rises over Tatooine.
- Past and present tense: “Batman hunted the Joker.” versus “Batman hunts the Joker.”
Using active voice can make your story more engaging and your characters more proactive, and as such, many writers prefer to use active voice.
When to use passive voice
While active voice can be considered “stronger” than passive voice, passive voice has its place in writing, too. In the case of passive voice, the object of the sentence is prioritized over the subject.
In some cases, passive voice can, much like active voice, add to the quality of your writing when used properly.
Passive voice can be an asset in a number of scenarios:
- You do not want the reader to know who is performing the action: The Joker is being hunted.
- Someone does not want to take responsibility for the action: “The Bellagio was robbed” versus “We robbed the Bellagio.”
- You prefer a longer lasting visual of an action: The sun is rising over Tatooine.
Active voice can give your writing an adrenaline-pinching twist, but passive voice can create suspense, mystery, and even help you cultivate a specific progression of time.
Switching from Passive to Active
Swap Passive Voice for Active Voice
As mentioned above, swapping from active voice to passive voice (or vice versa) depends on the scenario of your scene, story, essay, etc.
Once you distinguish which voice you should implement, it is helpful to have rules of thumb for each one.
Switch between active and passive voice
Two key tricks for flipping between active voice and passive voice are:
- Look for “is.” More often than not, when you remove the word “is,” your switch from passive voice to active voice is halfway complete. Ex: “He is running” versus “He runs.”
- Does the object have priority over the subject? Ex: “The dog is found by the owner” versus “The owner finds the dog.” Similarly, if your sentence contains the phrase “by the,” change the noun afterwards into the subject of your sentence.
When writing any exciting story, you can use countless tools and tricks to your advantage. Whether you want to manipulate time and suspense, or portray actions in the most proactive way possible, remaining flexible and knowledgeable with active and passive voice is a great place to start.
For more on active voice versus passive voice, be sure to check out What is Active Voice? And What is Passive Voice? for even more in-depth analysis that will help you strengthen your writing.
How to use active voice
In writing, it is crucial to be familiar with both "voices." Now that we have covered the both form, let's tackle the active voice. Its function, how it works, and when it should be used.