ABCs of Fiction Writing – Active Voice: Making ‘Do’

All writing is inevitably done in one of two voices: the active voice, or the passive voice. The difference between the two is what makes a story come to life rather than simply being told. Active voice is when the action is done by the subject, passive voice is when the action is simply told; or more simply, active voice is about the subject, passive voice is about the action. There is a time and place for both, but active voice is the better choice most of the time.

Example:

The wind was blowing harshly, making it impossible for the girl to stay upright in the gale without leaning into it.

Leaning into the harsh wind, she tried to stay upright in the gale.

Can you see the difference? The first one is passive voice, and rather than being a part of the action, you (the reader) are simply an observer. The second one is active voice, and you are with the girl as she travels through the storm.

Using the passive voice distances the reader from the character, and eventually from the story if it continues long enough – and if this is intentional, it is okay. The passive voice should be used sparingly, though. If the reader is never allowed to become emotionally involved, they will become bored.

An effective technique for using passive voice is if the reader is attached to a character, and you switch to passive voice for a scene (perhaps a mugging, car wreck, observing a tragedy), it can further victimize the character. It has to be carefully worked, so be sure to re-read it and make sure it gives the scene the element you want!

An example of a story I wrote that is entirely in passive voice is The Conquering Sword. It could be much better in active voice, but I don’t care enough about the story to edit it (again). When I first wrote the story, the emphasis was on the swords and the battle, which was why I used the passive voice. The reason might have been good, but that doesn’t make the story ‘great’!

The active voice draws people into the story – as long as your writing is not overly descriptive. Too many flowery words distract from the story, so you want to be sure to use the correct words to convey your characters. Readers need to identify and become the main character to grasp the full extent of the story. Using active voice is how you draw them into a character, by showing what the character is.

Example:

Wincing, the dead mouse was quickly flicked off the windowsill, the dead carcass softly thudding under her fingers. The house was a disaster. (passive)

She winced as the dead mouse softly thudded under her fingers when she flicked it off the windowsill. The house should have been condemned. (active)

In the first sentence, we don’t even know who the character might be until we’re almost done reading it. That alone distances the reader, and if it were to happen at the end of a paragraph, the reader will have lost interest. In the second sentence, though, we know there’s a woman and that she’s in someplace that has not been kept up.

Remember:

Passive voice is about the action – use sparingly, and only when it can add to the scene.

Active voice is about the subject – use often, but choose the right words.

Happy Writing!

Sources:
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Seventh Edition by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Daily Writing Tips – http://www.dailywritingtips.com/active-voice/