Active vs. Passive Voice (Writing #4)

I’ve talked about “voice” before–even as recently as series #35. But what I want to talk about today isn’t regarding the way you tell a story so much as it’s a sentence-structure thing. In an active sentence, the subject is acting on the verb. It pulls the reader in close to the story. A passive voice turns the object of the verb into the subject. Confused? Let’s look at some examples.

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Sentence one: Passive

1| My hand was sniffed by the dog.

vs.

Sentence one: Active

1| The dog sniffed my hand.

Notice in the passive sentence, how the action, “was sniffed” makes the object, “my hand,” into the subject of the sentence? But in the active sentence, the subject, which is “the dog,” is the one acting on the verb, “sniffed,” or doing the verb’s action–whichever you prefer. Let’s try another one.

A Boy Ready To Catch A Football - Royalty Free Clipart Picture

Sentence two: Passive

2| The football was caught by Mark.

vs.

Sentence two: Active

2| Mark caught the football.

The subject: in red The verb: in blue The object: in green.

The passive sentences, you’ll notice, use a form of has or is before the verb. In this case, it’s the past tense of is, which is was. Saying the football was caught by Mark is telling rather than showing. It’s like a movie camera that pans out for you to see the whole picture. It zooms out. If you are writing fiction, you want that active voice to zoom you into a deep POV. Let’s do another…

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Sentence three: Passive

3| When it fell over, the contents were spilled from Judy’s purse.

vs.

Sentence three: Active

3| Judy’s purse spilled its contents when it fell over.

This sentence shows that it doesn’t have to be an animal or person to be the subject of the sentence. And you will notice that passive sentences are longer than active sentences. That equates to the author needing more detail and writer finesse to build a sensory world with active voice. Now some sentences go well in the passive voice and might sound better to the ear. If that’s so, ask your editor, or your beta readers to tell you if it “sounds” right.

Woman chopping vegetables in kitchen - Stock Photo - Dissolve

Sentence four: Passive

4| The vegetables for the party tray were chopped.

vs.

Sentence four: Active

4| She chopped the vegetables for the party tray.

Sometimes the subject is implied in the passive sentence. The vegetables were chopped by whom? In this case you’ve got to use surrounding text to determine who did the action. It could be: I, he, she, it, a name, etc.

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Sentence five: Passive

5| The towel was left outside by Bridget.

vs.

Sentence five: Active

5| Bridget left the towel outside.

I hope you’re noticing a trend here with these sentences. Do you see this in your own writing? We all do it sometimes, but in other cases an author may rely heavily on passive voice. And though you are an artist, you need to pay attention to how far out you’re holding your reader. They want to get in close. People read books to have an emotional experience. Even if that experience is simple satisfaction, they want to feel something for your work.

In a nutshell, active voice says something “happened” and passive voice says something “did happen.” That’s the main difference between active voice and passive voice. In writing fiction, you want active voice, unless you’re explaining a memory or past scene, or the sentence is just meant to fit that way. The way to tell if a sentence is active or passive is to see a sentence that says something “had happened,” and mentally take out the had to see if the sentence still makes sense. If not, leave it there. If the sentence still makes sense, check to see if it says what you want it to say. Most of the time, taking “had” out of the sentence, makes it stronger and brings it into the present. But sometimes it’s used differently and is crucial to the sentence.

Try keeping your sentences active and it will help to pull the reader into your scenes–and shorten your word count. This is a short post today, I’m writing, and I’ve got to get back to work! See you next week!

Keep Writing!

~jenn

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