Plot to Punctuation Logo

Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

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 things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s 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.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

Permalink Permalink | Comments 13 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar