To Be or Not to Be Passive... That is the Question

By Professor Jen F.

How do you make your stories stand out in an overly saturated fandom?

How do you make your stories the ones that others recommend to their f'lists, message boards, and fan forums?

How do you make your stories the stories that people come back to read over and over?

By making your story the best it can be, obviously. But how?

In other articles, we've covered things like punctuation and spelling (i.e. presenting your fic as cleanly as you can), and doing your homework, etc... And that's all fine and dandy; that's mostly surface stuff and fairly easy to rectify if you have good friends and/or beta readers who are strong in the areas where you're weak.

But there are other intrinsic aspects to good story-telling. Some that can be hard to grasp and equally hard to learn. One of those concepts is active versus passive voice: making your story active and eliminating as much passive as possible. And sometimes, it's not hard, it's just being made aware of the issue.

Another way to grab a reader is with action, not just active voice. And I'm not talking about constant swashbuckling action like "The Pirates of the Caribbean" for however-many pages long your story is; I simply mean that characters should be doing something, saying something, or whatever. The plot should always be moving forward by what's on the page. Yes, there are times when the reader needs a rest, but that's scene and sequel, and we'll cover that in another article at some point. (If you want the very dry, original text on that, read Dwight Swain's "Techniques of a Selling Writer.") What I'm really talking about is long passages of back story, internal narrative, description, etc... Can you say boring? But that's also another article for another day.

According to The Guide to Grammar and Writing, the difference between passive and active voice is: "In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed."

So how do we spot it and, more importantly, how do we fix it?

First, let the presence of a form of a 'to be' verb* followed by a past participle** (an “--ed” word) or a gerund (an “--ing” word) always be a red flag to you. Take the opportunity to make your story stronger and more dynamic by looking for any forms of a 'to be' verb followed by an “--ed” or “--ing” word and revising.

Let's start with a couple of basic examples:

Example #1:

The first sentence is passive and ho hum, but it does get the information across. (It's also telling.) The second sentence is better. It's active and it's immediate; it's still sort of telling, but really more showing now. That's always a good thing. The third sentence is active, it's also showing how Robin walked and gives us some insight into his possible state of mind?happy, completely bonkers, or whatever. Now we've added some characterization. Woo hoo!

Example # 2:

The first example is passive as the subject, Knighton Hall, is being acted upon by something or someone else; in this case, Guy. In the second sentence, we've just taken the something or someone else (Guy) and made him the subject acting upon the object (now Knighton Hall). In the third sentence, as in the previous example, we've pizzazzed up the sentence a bit for better description and perhaps a clue as to the mind-set of Guy who did the torching. 'Torching' indicates a more malicious intent than just 'burning.'

Another indication of passive voice is when the object of the action comes first in the sentence, just like in the previous example, but not with the 'to be' verb/past participle or gerund issue.

Example # 3:

The first sentence is passive because the do-er of the action is really Robin Hood, and the structure of the sentence has the subject (the gold) as the recipient of the action. In the second sentence, the subject (Robin Hood) is now directly performing the action (stole), therefore the sentence is active. This sentence is perfectly fine, but it lacks a certain je na sais quoi. So in the third sentence, we've replaced "stole" with "pilfered" for a more colorful and fine-tuned word. The actual definition*** of "pilfer" is: to steal, especially to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again. How well does that fit Robin Hood?

On that side note, the English language has a plethora of words with just the right shade of meaning for your character and situation. Take some time and take advantage of the cornucopia of words available to add interest, depth, and layers to your stories.

And, yeah, on an intellectual level, readers may not know the difference between “stolen” and “pilfered,” but they will emotionally and viscerally, and that may mean the difference between “oh, I really liked this story” and “OMG, you gotta read this story by...”

Some other notes about passive voice...

1) Passive voice isn't incorrect—it just has its drawbacks, mainly wordiness, lack of clarity, awkward wording (and possibly word flow), and I might add a quality about it that doesn’t lend itself well to action and adventure fics. But sometimes it's necessary, especially when we don't know who or what the subject really is:

Yes, sentence one is active, but it doesn't really sound quite so dramatic, does it?

2) Passive voice is acceptable, even recommended, in cases where it is more important to draw the reader’s attention to what’s being acted upon than to the do-er of the action. (This example from a fic in a different fandom, but was so perfect I had to use it.)

3) Never mix active and passive voice in a single sentence.

So dear reader/writer, this article has been written for your learning pleasure. I hope you will be reading future articles.

* To be verbs: is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being

** The past participle of some words is not always just the word with the “--ed” tacked onto it: eat – ate, drink – drank, sleep – slept, etc... Just be aware of those exceptions.

*** Definition from Merriam-Webster Online

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