The Trouble with Passive Voice

The EndTwo different authors asked me to have a look at their stories this weekend, each of whom seem to be having a little trouble with passive voice. So I thought I’d write a post about it and my feelings on the subject. Of course, I’m not the world’s authority on the matter, this is just my opinion as a writer and mostly as a reader.

When you’re a beginning writer, one of the first and most important things you hear is to eliminate passive voice. So first:

What is passive voice?

Passive voice is where you use helper words for your verbs. The main culprits tend to be was, were and had:

Mary was going to the shops.

The soldiers were shooting at the rebels.

The warrior had gotten up.

But there are lots of other helper words that I would also count as passive voice:

The pin made her yelp.

He tried squirming through the hole.

What’s wrong with passive voice?

I’ll give you a short example and you may be able to see for yourself:

Passive: Mary was going to the shops. She had gotten twenty dollars from her mother. She was going to buy candy. She was reaching for the candy when a stranger approached. The stranger was making a weird expression.

Active: Mary went to the shops. She had twenty dollars from her mother to buy candy. She reached for the candy, and a stranger approach. His face contorted into a weird expression.

As you may have seen, the passive voice version feels like we’re being told the story by another person, rather than experiencing it ourselves.

Most people don’t count had, made, tried as passive voice.

However, I do. Anything that removes your characters willpower tends to be a bad thing. In the words of Yoda, “do or do not, there is no try.” A story where everyone is trying to do things all the time isn’t very interesting. Nor is one where they’re being made to do things:

The warrior got up.

When the pin pricked her, she yelped.

He squirmed partway through the hole, but couldn’t fit.

So we should kill all instances of was, were, had, etc?

No. That’s where the second author I’m reading this weekend comes in. It’s a trap I fell into too: Passive voice is bad? Alright, I’ll get rid of all of it.

Eliminating all instances of passive voice then makes text very dull and unpoetic. And in some cases makes it bizarre:

Tom walked into the room. Men stood around the room. The boss dressed in a tailored-suit. He beckoned for Tom.

This is a case where passive voice is called for:

Tom walked into the room. Men were standing around the room. The boss was dressed in a tailored suit. He beckoned for Tom.

How do you know when you should use passive voice, then?

That’s a tricky one. There are two rules of thumb I tend to use:

1. If something is happening when someone first gets into a situation, some passive voice may be called for. For instance, in the example above, the men were already standing around when Tom got there.

2. If something sounds weird without passive voice. Again, in the example above, you can’t say, ‘The boss dressed in a tailor suit’. It doesn’t sound right.

However, you should always err on the side of active voice if you can. For me personally, and for a lot of others, a story in primarily passive voice is unreadable. A story in only active voice is just dull, but it’s still readable.

Passive voice is like sauce on a steak. You don’t want the steak dry, or with too little sauce. You also don’t want the plate flooded with sauce. You want something between a drizzle and a tablespoon-full.

I hope this has been of some help. If you agree or disagree with me, please do let me know in the comments. As I say, I’m not a world-class expert on this, just someone working hard to make their writing as smooth as possible.


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