Active, vivid prose is one of the fundamental tools to liven descriptions. Concrete nouns, action verbs, and active voice are essential parts of descriptive language.
Active voice is powerful and vigorous. Sentences written in active voice propel your story forward and keep the reader in the midst of what is happening.
Passive voice distances the reader from the action in the story. Sentences written in passive voice are less direct and bold.
ACTIVE VOICE vs PASSIVE VOICE
ACTIVE: Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain, rapped her walking stick on the pavement.
PASSIVE: The walking stick was rapped on the pavement by Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain.
The first sentence focuses on the subject of the sentence (Fran, the Neighborhood Watch Captain), who is the doer of the action (rapped the walking stick on the pavement).
The second sentence lacks boldness and is indirect. Passive voice means that the object of the action (here it is the walking stick) becomes the subject of the verb, although the object (walking stick) isn’t actually the one doing the action (rapping).
ACTIVE VOICE HACK
Most sentences only require a quick, easy fix: to make a passive sentence active, move the subject to the beginning of the sentence.
PASSIVE: The elm trees were pushed back and forth in the hurricane.
ACTIVE: The hurricane pushed the elm trees back and forth.
PASSIVE: The kitchen was gutted and remodeled by Grandpa.
ACTIVE: Grandpa gutted and remodeled the kitchen.
DECLUTTERING YOUR SENTENCES
Putting the subject in the beginning of the sentence helps declutter your prose. Many passive sentences are clunky and contain unnecessary words. Two common examples are filler phrases that begin with there and it.
CLUTTERED: It looks like the weather today is good to have a picnic in the park.
TIDY: The weather today looks good for a picnic in the park.
CLUTTERED: There are thirty-eight sheep hanging out in the meadow.
TIDY: Thirty-eight sheep hang out in the meadow.
USES FOR PASSIVE VOICE
Passive and cluttered sentences might be more appropriate than active voice in certain situations, for example in stock expressions:
We were dropped off at school.
I was paid today.
The young boy was hit by a car.
Another example of when passive voice may be preferable to active voice is if your subject itself is passive, behavior or personality wise. Conveying the passivity or weakness through description adds a symbolic layer.
Nibbles McCloon was bewildered by her fans’ disapproval of her pro-gun stance.
The sentence above shows that the fans’ disapproval minimizes Nibbles. The fans’ disapproval therefore becomes more important than Nibbles, the seeming subject; there is a shift in power. This can work quite well symbolically, and you only need it one time.
John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, talks about situations where passive voice might be appropriate:
“The active voice is almost invariably more direct and vivid: ‘Your parrot bit me’ as opposed to (passive) ‘I was bitten by your parrot.’ (The choice in this case may depend on characterization. A timid soul fearful of giving offense might well choose the passive construction.)”
Active sentences are the best choice, whenever possible. You can still convey a passive or weak subject through active writing with strong word choices.
Do you naturally write in active or passive voice? Do you think writing in active voice is easy or challenging?
Have a writerly day!