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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

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13 Comments:

Posted by Foolness on September 10, 2009 07:21 UTC

Nice advise. I wasn’t aware though that many people made reasons for the passive in those phrase.

The most common one I’ve heard for the active voice is that it’s short so I would most likely think that the problem with passive voice would always be that it leads to too much adjective compared to it’s active form. (but that would probably fit in with the boring portion I guess)

That said, could you provide a less extreme passive example of the same phrase?

I know I should know this concept already so it’s like preaching to a choir but—-

When I actually read your post and tried to forget that I know the concept already, I found difficulty in learning the concept through this article because it seemed you put more passion on the active example than the passive one. Somehow this confusion further extended to the rest of the post and I found I couldn’t follow your trail of explanation because of this.

Posted by Jason Black on September 10, 2009 20:18 UTC

An extreme example, as I deliberately crafted this one to be, makes the underlying point more obvious. Most writers who lean heavily on passive voice aren’t, I’ll admit, as obsessive with it as that example. To recap my main points: 1. Passive voice is bad because it hides your characters from view, thus preventing the reader from emotionally bonding with them. 2. Passive voice is bad because it shifts the writer’s focus away from the characters, and thus prevents the writer from thinking about how real people would act and react in a given situation.

Posted by Foolness on September 11, 2009 01:46 UTC

Yeah...

normally an extreme example works that way but strangely enough, not for me on this one.

To take a devil’s advocate stance with your points:

1. How can the beginning writer quantify how much character is hidden if there’s some possibility that the extreme example already goes far in hiding the character and is already intended to separate the writer from the emotional bonding of good writing from bad writing?

2. How can the beginning writer know how much focus is being shifted away when the extreme example, by virtue of being extreme, already tries to shift the focus of validity away?

In this situation, the extreme example, actually forces the writer to create a separate example for himself in order to quantify the value. The problem with doing this is that how sure can the beginner know that it’s not just his poor writing and bias that achieves this effect as opposed to an example done by a quality writer?

Posted by Jason Black on September 11, 2009 04:51 UTC

The beginning writer has a whole lot more to learn than this, believe me.

If I can convey to you at least the idea that passive voice has a down-side, and beyond that to at least explain a little bit of why, then that alone will help you become a better writer.

The truth is, there’s a whole lot of stuff that a beginning writer might understand on an intellectual level through reading blog posts like this one, but won’t truly understand until he or she runs into it in practice.

To be a good writer, you have to write. There’s nothing I can do about that. No amount of explanation on my blog or any other—whether the examples are extreme to the point of caricature or are pitched just-so—can take the place of you actually sitting at your keyboard, writing.

At least now next time you find yourself writing passive voice sentences and wondering why your characters aren’t coming to life as you’d like them to, maybe you’ll say “oh, yeah, there was that thing I read on Show Some Character about that.” Then you can come back and re-read this at a time when it’ll mean something to you.

If it doesn’t mean anything to you now, keep writing! Always keep writing.

Posted by Cynthia on October 05, 2009 00:21 UTC

I am a beginning writer and I found this article to be a great learning tool. I do have much to learn about the writing process and I understand that Foolness may be coming at it from a different angle. One in which he/she already knows the ropes of writing. I, on the other hand, saw the value in exagerating the example used to make the point. I have read many articles about passive and active voice, but until now, I just couldn’t grasp the difference.

Thank you so much for posting this article. I look forward to taking advantage of your wisdom.

Posted by Jason Black on October 05, 2009 05:04 UTC

I’m glad you found it helpful! Please don’t hesitate to be in touch if I can help with anything else. I’m always looking for clients, and always looking for topics to blog about!

Posted by Lisa Gail Green on July 22, 2010 00:48 UTC

Great examples of passive vs. active voice. It all comes back to character and feeling, doesn’t it?

Posted by JayCee on July 27, 2010 03:42 UTC

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

The passive voice has often tripped me up, usually in my blog. I always change it so that the ‘grammar police’ accept it, but I never really knew why!!! Now, with your ‘extreme’ example as a guide, I understand!

However, it’s more work for me! My first MS is very close to ready for submission. Now, another read-through - looking for the Mom who made the sandwich for Sam, rather than the sandwich itself. LOL

It’s a task I will gladly do! Thank you again!!

JayCee

Posted by Jason Black on July 27, 2010 15:42 UTC

@Lisa, @JayCee:

I’m so glad to have helped. I find that understanding why we have these rules of thumb for writing is ten times more helpful than simply knowing what the rule is. Which, I guess, is why so much of my blog focuses on helping people understand the why behind various character development problems.

Posted by Tamie on August 01, 2010 04:44 UTC

Actually, I read the first version as a story about the lunch that was being made. WHY someone would write a story about the lunch is beyond me. Certainly a strange choice on the writer’s part.

But I do see your point; if that story was supposed to be about the people making (and eating) the lunch, then the passive voice is most likely “bad” writing...but there’s no way to know that from the short excerpt. (Alternatively, the author could have intentionally hidden the characters from view, but I digress.)

To use a simpler example, let’s try one I’d read in some book on writing (horror, I think)...the first explanation I’d ever seen of the difference between passive and active. Go figure. PV: The body was carried off. AV: Someone carried off the body.

Now, given those two versions, what do you think is central to each story? I believe, and my vaguely remembered source for that example also stated, that the Active Voice version would be about whoever carried off the body (characters in action)...and the Passive Voice version was about the body itself ("character” being acted upon). Which effect is the author going for? What if, just suppose, the body (or whomever it was before dying) was the central “character"? Wouldn’t that be reason enough to focus the sentence structure ON THE BODY?

Just curious. My point, I suppose, is that Passive Writing isn’t necessarily “bad;” it has its place in good writing. What’s bad is using it improperly, in the wrong place. Just like any rule.

P.S. I have to agree with Foolness’ original post about the problem with your extreme example. You tried to FORCE us to see the text your way. This is beneficial in “helping” readers to understand the story our way, but it distracted us from deciding for ourselves if the writing was good or bad. (The operative word, however, is “try.” Given my interpretation of the first example, the question of “good” or “bad” writing was kind of shoved to the side.)

Posted by Jason Black on August 01, 2010 20:20 UTC

@Tamie “My point, I suppose, is that Passive Writing isn’t necessarily “bad;” it has its place in good writing. What’s bad is using it improperly, in the wrong place. Just like any rule.”

Of course. There are always times when passive voice is the most effective way to get an idea across.

Like the saying goes, you can break any supposed rule of writing, as long as it works. Experienced and gifted writers understand when rule violations do work, and know how to get away with them. This applies to sentence fragments, run-on sentences, adverbs, and yes, passive voice.

The point of the article is to show (through an admittedly extreme example) why passive voice usually doesn’t work, and thus, why we have the rule of thumb to avoid it.

Again, experienced writers understand when they can use passive voice and get away with it. The reason they can do this, is exactly because they understand why passive voice usually doesn’t work. If you understand why the rule is what it is, then you’ll also understand which situations the rule best applies to. So if you’re writing in a different situation (if, in your example, the story’s central character really is the body), you’ll understand that passive voice might work well indeed for you.

So that’s really all I’m trying to do with this post (and the bulk of my blog, acatually), is help people understand the why behind the kinds of writing suggestions you’re most likely to hear, as filtered through the lens of character development techniques.

Posted by asha on March 13, 2012 07:18 UTC

what will be the passive voice of “do you know him"?

Posted by Jason Black on March 13, 2012 20:25 UTC

@asha—

Questions aren’t typically a problem for passive voice. For whatever reason, the natural voice people tend to use for questions is already active. If you really wanted to force a question into passive voice, just invert the subject and the direct object. So “do you know him?” becomes “is he known by you?”

As a piece of dialogue, I think you won’t have any trouble sensing how the passive form of the question sounds terribly wooden. Although in some settings (e.g. the hyper-formal, rule-bound world of Victorian high society), perhaps that might work.

Regardless, a question is dialogue (only exceedingly rarely will you find a question within ordinary narrative), and as always, the golden rule for dialogue is to write it in the way that the characters would most naturally say it.

That rule, as it happens, dovetails perfectly with my core suggestion in this article. I’m suggesting you avoid passive voice because passive voice stops you from keeping your own characters foremost in your mind, which is where your characters need to be if you’re to have any hope of rendering them well on the page. For dialogue, focusing on how a character would most naturally say something achieves the same result. You still have to focus on the character in order to generate their dialogue.

As long as you’re doing that, you shouldn’t have to worry yourself overly much about questions of active and passive voice; the characters should shine through anyway.

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