More often than not, most instructors will tell you that active voice is the key to strengthening your writing. What is important to understand though, is that using passive voice can actually be an asset of your craft, too. Read on to learn why properly using the passive voice can be a gamechanger for you.
Passive Voice in Practice
First, let’s define Passive Voice
Stories told in the passive voice is often considered a “weak” form. It can seem longer winded and unclear. But to really understand why this is, it’s important to know that the secret to passive voice is in where in your sentence to place the subject performing an action.
PASSIVE VOICE DEFINITION
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is a grammatical voice construction in which the person/object receiving the action is more important than the person/object performing the action.
The person/object receives the action.
- The Joker is hunted by Batman.
- Linguini is controlled by Remy.
- Marty McFly is sent back in time.
Use Passive Voice
How to use Passive Voice
From short stories to screenplays, it is widely considered more comfortable for the reader to read in the active voice: the action is clear, as well as the person performing it. It can also keep sentence structure trim and efficient. However, there are definitely benefits to using passive voice.
Passive voice can be useful in a number of scenarios:
- The person or object receiving the action is more important.
- The person or object performing the action is avoiding responsibility.
- The person or object performing the action is a secret.
What is interesting about passive voice versus active voice is that when you have a full grasp on their key differences, the reasons to speak in the passive voice can be more heavily based in story-telling strategy rather than grammatical norms and efficiency.
When to Use Passive Voice
When to use passive voice
Passive voice can often read as confusing, but it can also lend itself well to mystery. This isn’t to say passive voice should only be used in situations where there is a mystery or in specifically in the mystery genre. This is to say that you can add mystery or intrigue to everyday actions your characters are performing by making the simple switch to passive voice.
You can use passive voice both in dialogue and, especially if you’re writing a script, used in lines of action. In your lines of action, activ voice is also typically key to efficient reading and commonly associate with stronger scriptwriting. That being said, maybe you’d like to keep a secret from your reader, as well. Using passive voice can add intrigue, and allow you to hold a secret until the point in your plot at which you want to reveal it.
Passive voice in lines of action:
- An axe is thrown through the window.
- A blindfold is put over her eyes.
- A bell is rung.
Perhaps the person performing these action in your story is someone you’d like to revela later. Phrasing your action in passive voice can help you tell the action of your story without spoiling the ending.
Another example of a strategic way to use the passive voice is when a character does not know who performed an action or perhaps does not want to place blame or responsibility on another for performing an action. Essentially, this could lend itself well to a character trait.
Passive voice in lines of dialogue:
- “I was thrown into the bar fight.”
- “I was told that I couldn’t do that.”
- “The car in front of mine was rear-ended.”
If you are creating a character who has trouble accepting responsibility, maybe they only speak in the passive voice. Alternatively, if this character specifically wants to keep something a secret, or does not know information, this would be a time to implement passive voice. Using this sentence structure can be but another layer of detail that can help bring your story to life.
Common passive voice mistakes
Common passive voice misconceptions
It is common to confuse passive voice with the progressive voice. This is because there are tell-tale ways to identify passive voice which often look a lot like the progressive voice.
One way to distinguish passive voice is by spotting a past participle after a form of “to be” (and often followed by the word “by” or no subject at all):
- “The book was passed by the teacher.”
- “The time was checked.”
With the progressive form of a verb, even if in past tense, the sentence can look passive typically because of the presence of the “to be” verb.
- “The teacher was passing the book,” versus “The book was being passed.”
- “They were checking the time,” versus “The time was being checked.”
Again, the first step in determining passive versus active voice is by spotting who performs an action and where they fall in the sentence. Think: Does the person/thing performing the action come before the verb, or after?
Passive voice gets a bad reputation as bad or simple writing. But now that you have mastered spotting and using the passive voice, you can definitely use it to your advantage and bring your writing to the next level.
How to use Active Voice
In writing, it is crucial to be familiar with both "voices." Now that we have covered the passive form, let's tackle the active voice. Its function, how it works, and when it should be used.