Using Passive Voice in Fiction
One of the most common questions I get from authors is “What is wrong with using passive voice?” The answer is . . . nothing. Technically. It's not actually ungrammatical, despite what you have most likely been told. But chances are you probably still shouldn’t be using it. Let me explain.
(All of the bold, italicized, and underlined words on this page are in the passive voice).
What is Passive Voice?
Passive voice is when a subject has something acted upon it.
Active voice is when a subject does the acting.
Passive voice occurs when a “be” verb is combined with a past participle. A "be" verb is any verb of being. I have them listed below. Not every “be” verb is passive, though. They become passive voice when they are combined with a past participle.
A past participle is a word formed from a verb that acts as an adjective. They are used with auxiliary (also known as helping) verbs. You can usually find past participle forms in the dictionary. Past participles commonly end in -ed, -d, -t, -en, or -n. Some examples are listed below.
Here are a few examples of these past participles being used to create passive voice:
I am amazed by the author’s talent for telling stories.
The book was read by Mel, and she loved it.
They were written in a unique pattern.
Writing where no one actually does anything can get boring fast. Imagine trying to read an instruction manual for fun. Instruction manuals are almost always written in the passive voice. Readers are interested in what characters are doing in a story, not what is being done to them. Passive voice prevents the story from moving forward in any logical way. It is as if the characters are sitting on a bench doing nothing as the rest of the world continues to move around them. They allow things to happen to them and do nothing to prevent it or fight back. They don’t do anything. Readers give up on stories like this rather quickly.
Examples of passive voice:
The window was hit by the girl’s ball.
I was surprised.
It was decided by the jury that the defendant was guilty.
Examples of the same sentences in an active voice:
She hit the window with her ball.
They surprised me.
The jury found the defendant guilty.
When is passive voice okay?
Passive voice should be used sparingly in fiction; however, there are times when the passive voice is the better option.
· When you don’t know who performed the action in question. Or when you don’t want readers to know who performed the action.
· When you want to highlight the action happening and lessen the focus on who performed it.
· For pacing. Passive voice can slow down a scene.
Active: “He ate the pizza quickly.”
Passive: “The pizza was eaten quickly by the man.”