Active vs Passive, Passive vs Active - It's Enough to Make a Writer's Head Spin (Penny Rader)

I don't know about you, but the whole active vs passive thing confused me when I was a newbie writer. Sometimes I still get it a bit mixed up. I thought I'd search the 'net and see what I could find. I hope you find these links (and the included snippets from the links) helpful.

Activate Passive Narrative – Most of the Time (Ray Rhamey)

How to turn passive to active:

Search for “to be” verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been, then try to turn them around. Passive sentences are constructed like this: object-verb-subject. Take the subject and put it at the front of the sentence, put the object at the end, and change the verb. For example:

Passive: My book is being read by an editor. (book = object, editor = subject)

Active: An editor is reading my book.

…Be wary of combining “to be” verbs with present participles. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything with a “was” is passive, but there are sentences that are not. And a present participle — a verb with an “ing” suffix — does not equal passive.

…My advice: search for forms of “to be” in your writing and see if you can activate or de-ing your sentences. If you’re writing in the past tense, “was” and “were” are the primary culprits. In the present tense, search for “is” and “are.”

Active Verbs vs Passive Verbs in Fiction (Sandra Haven)

Passive Structure:
The motor went dead. Sally was scared and her hands were shaking more than ever as she took her hands off the steering wheel. Her mind was racing at a dizzying speed so that all she felt was numb.

This should be a tense scene, but we have 5 passives with only took a possibly visual act – but not too exciting at that. By activating the verbs you create the tension we need:

Active Structure:
The motor died. Sally’s hands shook as she snatched them off the wheel in fear. Her mind raced at a dizzying speed as a cold numbness threatened to steal her breath.

See how much more intense this feels. We can see every action listed. The reader feels dizzy right along with Sally. We have verbs of actions we can see or feel in some way. Readers are suddenly in the story instead of being told about it.

Eliminating Passive Writing (Laura Backes)

I've read entire manuscripts written in passive sentences, which make the story sound like it's about to start, but never takes off. Passive writing tells rather than shows; the author circles the story without ever letting the reader become involved in the action.

Passive Voice (Amy Padgett)

Do not confuse verb tense with passive or active voice. Passive or active are determined strictly by the doer or recipient of the action. And, believe it or not, there are actually times when you should use passive voice.

This is one way that you can make active/passive voice work for you—and help you define your characters. A hero who is uncomfortable with emotions and likes to keep people at a distance, may prefer to say, “A bus hit Nancy.” It’s direct, impersonal, and active. Those may be your hero’s main traits.On the other hand, a hero who is emotionally connected to Nancy and focused on her and her tragedy, may say, “Nancy was hit by a bus this morning.” It reveals his focus on Nancy and the writer can use that to show his emotional “reference.”

Passive Voice Hides Your Characters (Jason Black)

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing or the tools they're using.

…Passive voice is lazy writing because it lets you skip the hard work of figuring out how characters feel and how those feelings shape their actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

What’s So Bad About Passive Voice? (Carmelo Martino)

…it’s not enough to avoid passive sentence constructions like “The milk was spilled by her.” (You can easily spot these constructions if you use the grammar checker in Microsoft Word.) We also need to avoid verbs that are “in effect” passive, such as forms of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were, have been, had been, etc. Consider the following examples:

The room was crowded.
They were outside.
Her hair is beautiful.

Now notice how the movie in your mind changes if, instead of: The room was crowded.
We write: Patients filled the waiting room.
Or: The line of waiting passengers snaked outside the station entrance.

What if, instead of: They were outside.
We write: They paced on the front porch.
Or: They sat in the grass.

And if, instead of: Her hair is beautiful.
We write: Her auburn hair fell past her shoulders.
Or: Her golden hair glowed in the afternoon sun.

Of course, I’ve done more than change the verbs in these examples – I’ve added details to help readers visualize the scene. These details increase the probability that the movie playing in readers’ minds will match the one I saw while writing. And if the neuroscientists are right, readers won’t just “watch” the movie, they’ll live it.
I hope you'll share what you know and/or have learned about Active vs Passive. If you know of additional resources, I'd love to hear about them.


P.L. Parker said...

Great post, very helpful. Thanks

Linda Morris said...

This is a great round-up of advice on a topic that always confuses me. (I always get dinged on this by editors as well. Or should that be "Editors always ding me on this as well"?) In any case, great post!

Terry Odell said...

I'm glad you mentioned that "was" doesn't necessarily mean passive. Passive voice and passive writing aren't the same at all. I doubt anyone would ding Lee Child or Michael Connelly for using a lot of was

As long as you're true to your voice, and aware of what effect you're trying to create, you should write what works for the story.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

D'Ann said...

Great post, Penny!

Shawna Thomas said...

Great post, Penny.

If I'm not careful, I sometimes slip into passive.


Penny Rader said...

Hi P.L.! Thanks for visiting.

Penny Rader said...

LOL, Linda. My drafts are sometimes written kinda lazily just to get words on the page and give me something to work with. (Something with which to work?) I try to punch it up in subsequent drafts to make it more active.

Penny Rader said...

Thanks, Terry. Wish I had thought to research passive voice as opposed to passive writing.

Penny Rader said...

Thanks for joining us, D'Ann!

Penny Rader said...

Hi Lynne! I agree, it's so easy to slip into passive voice. Sometimes it's not even necessarily passive, but just enough. I do like being sucked into books, rather than just sorta skim over the surface. Wouldn't it be cool if we really could physically inhabit the stories? As long as there's a way back, that is. :D

Rox Delaney said...

Penny, you want to inhabit stories? Rent the movie INKHEART.

Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, & Helen Mirren star in it. I loved it and finally bought the DVD. ;)

Rox Delaney said...

Forgot to mention that INKHEART was originally (and still is LOL) a book. Actually, 3 books. But from what I heard, although the movie stands alone wonderfully, it isn't at all faithful to the book. It's probably one of those see the movie first, read the book second things.

Now to find time to check those links... Great post, as always!

Penny Rader said...

Ooh, thanks, Rox! I will definitely check out Inkheart. Love Brendan Fraser!

Tanya Hanson said...

Gerat post, Penny I taught Freshman English for a million years. and this was always such a biggie. Active is almost alwys better and takes fewer words, too.

Thanks for the reminder.

Penny Rader said...

Hi Tanya! It's so good to see you. I forgot you taught school. It's been a bazillion years since I was a freshman - I have vague memories of my freshman English class. Though a real cute guy sat a couple rows over from me. Infectious smile, great hair.

Mary Ricksen said...

Wonderful advise for passive and active voice rules. Many Thankx!