Passive Voice: How to Recognize and Fix It in Creative Writing
Most writers have heard they should use active instead of passive voice in their stories. However, hearing this advice and knowing how and why you should (usually) convert your passive sentences to active ones are two very different levels of understanding. You need to know the pros, cons, and effects of passive phrasing to make the best choice for your piece.
* This is passive voice in CREATIVE WRITING, which is a broader collection of phrases than passive voice in GRAMMAR
Defining Passive Voice
Passive Voice Defined by Grammar Guides
Passive voice is created when the subject of the sentence is acted upon instead of doing an action. This looks like:
The toilet was overflowing with water.
The park had been decorated with streamers.
Notice how the toilet is not performing the action of overflowing in this sentence. Instead it is being acted upon by the water. The park is also not performing the action of decorating. Words like “is/was,” “be/been,” and “-ing” words after a verb like “was” are used to create passive voice in this way.
Extended Passive Voice Definition in Creative Writing
In creative writing, there are other ways a sentence is made passive: starting an action or telling your reader what a character is feeling. Words like “starting/beginning” and “feeling/felt” create this kind of passive voice. Here’s what those look like:
Jim started to run after Fluffy.
Instead of performing the running action, Jim only started to run.
Sarah felt sad.
Here the passive phrasing is telling, not showing. Instead of showing Sarah acting or being sad, the sentence just tells the reader she is sad. This type of passive voice is indicative of passive thinking when writing. The author is reporting the story when they should be striving to build a more detailed experience for their reader.
Active Voice Definition
Active voice – the preferred phrasing – is when the sentence’s subject is performing the action. Here’s how you might convert these examples from passive phrasing to active phrasing:
Water overflowed from the toilet.
Streamers decorated the park.
Jim ran after Fluffy.
Tears welled in Sarah’s eyes.
Notice how these new sentences have more active, descriptive verbs. They build a more specific, detailed image than the passive versions. All I needed to do to give this sentences more punch was to get rid of the passive words.
Passive Voice Slows Your Pace
Passive phrasing using words like “started,” “was,” or “had been,” slow the pace of your story by bogging it down with extra words that don’t contribute to your reader’s experience. “Was” is an empty word. When I say “was” by itself, it likely doesn’t inspire any sort of mental picture. The same goes for “begin.” The other words in the sentence are what create the image and action for the reader, so use more of those specific, vivid, colorful words and less of the empty ones.
A similar slowing down happens when you filter the story too literally through your character’s eyes. When you are in first, third, or second person, your reader knows they are experiencing the story through a certain character’s point of view, so you don’t need to say “Sally heard a loud bang” or “Timmy watched his paper boat sink.” Instead, you can write “Bang!” or “The paper boat sank” and eliminate those unnecessary words.
Don’t allow passive voice to slow your story’s pace unintentionally with extra or empty words. Only slow your pace on purpose. If you have a tendency to use passive voice, do a word search for “was,” “started,” or any other passive words you use. Also do a word search for “heard” or “saw” if you tend to unnecessarily filter your story too literally through your character’s eyes. Rephrase those sentences to bring your pace back up to speed and tighten your prose.
Passive Voice Distances Readers from Characters and Action
When you use the extended creative writing passive phrasing like “started to run” or “felt,” you distance your reader and characters from the action, events, and setting of your story. Rarely do people start do something: They do it. When you say a character started to do something, you imply they were interrupted and did not complete the action. You’re also adding an unnecessary extra word. This distances the character from that action almost as if you as the author haven’t committed your character to the action. That distance translates to the reader, pushing them farther from the story.
The “heard/saw” filter also distances your reader in this way. Instead of allowing your reader to hear “Bang,” you are forcing them to watch the character hear the sound. Removing the “heard.” word brings your reader closer to your story by allowing them to hear “Bang!”
Telling your reader what a character feels has the opposite problem of most other forms of creative writing passive voice: you’re using too few words, not too many. That’s because this is really more passive thinking than passive voice. “Felt” is generic and often the result of lazy writing. Don’t tell your reader what your character felt; show how they experience that emotion. What does sadness look like on them? How does it physically feel inside their body? How does the emotion affect their decision making? Telling creates distance between your reader and your story because it doesn’t provide enough information to allow your reader to build a full mental picture. You’re skipping out on key character development opportunities. How someone experiences and processes emotion says a lot about who they are and their self-control.
Passive voice can develop when the author is distancing themselves from their writing. If you’re crafting a difficult scene or writing about something that makes you uncomfortable or you don’t know much about, you might subconsciously attempt to distance yourself from that scene. This often means writing with passive instead of active phrases. Double check these kinds of difficult scenes to make sure they are active.
Why an Editor Recommends Avoiding Passive Voice – Most of the Time
Today’s readers like a story that moves and gets to the point. Passive voice is the opposite of this.
However, passive phrasing is not all bad. Sometimes rephrasing means creating a convoluted sentence or using too many words to make your point. If your character is rushing to their child to make sure they’re not infected with a zombie virus, ending the scene with the phrase “Caroline was bitten.” can be more effective than trying to rephrase it to something like “The corpse bit Caroline.”
My rule of thumb when it comes to rephrasing passive voice is to look at the effort and effects of changing it. If the sentence is easy to alter, I change it to active voice. If the sentence isn’t necessarily easy to change, but becomes more colorful or specific when rewritten, I rewrite it. However, if the sentence is difficult to rephrase and the story doesn’t gain better details, character insight, or clearer action, I leave the passive voice. Passive voice should be avoided, not eradicated.
Passive voice should be considered and fixed in the later stages of revision. It’s not something you should be overly concerned with while you’re drafting. After you’ve cut and moved scenes for story and structure reasons, check your sentences. Change from passive to active voice to tighten your prose, speed up your pace, and build more vivid descriptions to Ignite Your Ink.
What type of passive phrasing do you have to watch out for? I look for “was” when I’m setting the scene and eliminate the passive word by giving my setting movement. To get more writing tips and learn more about controlling voice through a synonym voice building worksheet, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Author: Caitlin Berve
Caitlin Berve is the owner of Ignited Ink Writing, where she edits novels, creates video tutorials for software companies, and writes. Using her MFA, she teaches creative writing at conferences, colleges, and Colorado writers organizations. Caitlin seeks to fill the world with the kind of writing that lingers with readers, find magic in modern times, and pet all the fluffy and scaly animals she can.