Many of us remember teachers warning against the use of passive voice in our lessons. Young writers slip into passive voice easily, particularly when they are writing personal pieces. But the difference between active and passive voice can be elusive for the more experienced writer as well. How do we resolve this constant battle between passive voice vs active voice?
What is Passive Voice vs Active Voice
Active voice happens when the subject appears at the beginning of the sentence and performs an action.
Example: Jennifer threw the ball.
Passive voice happens when the action of the sentence is happening to the subject.
Example: The ball was thrown to Jennifer.
Different Functions: Passive Voice vs Active Voice
Each voice gives a different impression in a sentence.
The active voice creates authority in the sentence giving a sense of objectivity. Writing in the active voice is oftentimes shorter and more straightforward for the reader.
The passive voice lacks the same authority and gives a more objective feeling to the writing.
Once a writer is clear about the difference between the two voices, they can begin to play with the usage of each. Using active verses passive voice is an effective way to show verses tell in the writing.
For non-fiction writers, using the active voice is important in persuasive writing, or journalistic writing that conveys facts. Non-fiction writers can also weave passive voice into writing that is more editorial, or for writing meant to feel conversational to the reader.
Consider this passage written in active voice from Into the Wild (1996) by John Krakauer.
“He peppered Gallien with thoughtful questions about the kind of small game that live in the country, the kinds of game that live in the country, the kinds of berries he could eat – ‘that kind of thing.’
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice.”
In the above passage, the first sentence shows active voice with the words He peppered Gallien. He (Alex) is the subject, and Krakauer follows the subject with a strong verb, peppered, to reveal imagery in this sentence. The final sentence, where Alex is the subject is also active voice, Alex admitted. In these sentences, Alex is given strong and specific verbs.
The second sentence, Still, Gallien was concerned, reveals a weaker to be verb, and shows the apprehension Gallien is feeling.
In the following paragraphs, Krakauer uses the passive voice to reveal the setting in the story.
“The trail was blazed in the 1930’s by a legendary Alaska miner named Earl Pilgrim…”
“The project was halted in 1963: some fifty miles of road were eventually built…”
Krakauer consistently reserves the active voice to reveal the story of his character and threads the setting into the story with the passive voice. This usage gives depth to the reader’s experience by revealing the natural environment as a character in the story, and a growing place of tension and potential conflict for Alex.
Fiction writers may find varying the use of voices to be beneficial in conveying characters.
For example, a character who is in charge and forceful may speak only in an active voice. Whether the reader is aware of this choice, they will subconsciously feel the authority the character is conveying.
Likewise, a character who struggles with confidence or is making a difficult decision may speak predominantly in the passive voice, giving the reader that sense of uncertainty the writer wants to show in that character.
Consider this passage from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Sea of Tranquility (2022)
“In a flash of wild optimism, Edwin has his occupation recorded as ‘farmer’ on the ship’s manifest. It occurs to him later, in a contemplative moment out on deck, that he’s never so much as touched a spade.”
In this example, Mandel sets Edwin’s character up as one that has things happen to him with the use of passive voice in the first sentence, Edwin has his occupation recorded as... This element of character is important when Edwin meets a moment of which he has no control.
Compare the first example with the following sentences that reveal characters who are written in the active voice,
“Gaspery shot him a troubled look. Mirella watched him while she waited for an opportunity to ask about Vincent. Gaspery seemed foreign in a way that she couldn’t quite parse.”
The above sentences show clear subject and action in the beginning of the sentences. Gaspery shot/Mirella watched. The concise active sentences here create tension in the writing as the reader waits for Mirella to ask a question she is considering in the scene.
Conclusion: Passive Voice vs Active Voice
Writers have many tools at their disposal to create character and show the reader the story. Using active and passive voice as intentional tools strengthens the writing and gives depth to the reader experience.
Article Written by Heather Wood
By combining my experience of teaching writing at the secondary level with a Fictionary StoryCoach Edit, I will help you strengthen your story while honouring the care and effort you have dedicated to your art.
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