Passive Aggression

You’ve seen’em. You’ve read’em. You’ve said’em.

The words that create passive voice. That sentence construction that takes away the active participant and leaves you with a wimpy little line.

For example: The pineapple juice was obliterated

OK. We have pineapple juice. Or perhaps, as the sentence implies, had pineapple juice. The problem with passive voice is that we don’t actually know who or what obliterated the pineapple juice. It’s a mystery! Only we don’t need Mr. Holmes for this one.

Now, let’s swap the sentence to active:

Godzilla obliterated the pineapple juice.

Now we have visual action. I’m not going to diagram the sentence because I’m not going to subject you all to torture, but you can see the difference. The sentence packs more energy. We’re more concerned with what is happening rather than the object that it’s happening to.

In short, conventional wisdom has it that passive voice is bad and active voice is good, and that’s more or less that. To which I say, it’s your book. Write what you want. Nobody may read it, but you can put words in whatever order you please.

A touch more seriously – it’s worth acknowledging that passive voice has its place. I tend to veer back and forth between the two, but try to kill some of the lazier passive sentences in editing. Less out of a hatred of passive voice and more because active sentences tend to be more fun. If you’ve got Godzilla in your story, wouldn’t you rather make the King of Lizards the star of all your sentences? Why let the pineapple juice have one to itself?

So if I’m saying that passive voice has its place, then where is that?

I use it when constructing an active sentence that would accomplish the same objective would require all sorts of convolutions. Or when deviating from passive would mean adding information the reader doesn’t need to have at that point.

Consider this sentence:

I felt a punch on my left side, hard and fast. I’d been shot.

Now, if I wanted to make it all active, I could do this:

I felt a punch on my left side, hard and fast. Someone had shot me.

Neither is wrong, but from a narrative perspective, I’d been shot feels more dramatic. Something a character might say to close a scene. You can scour the internet for plenty of other examples, but ultimately it’s your narrative. You ought to use the sentence construction that feels right.

However, if you’re waffling between the two, I would go active more often than not. You’re putting sentences in the perspective of the thing doing the action, rather than the thing being acted upon. Your work will feel faster, you’ll have a better idea of flow, and, really, you’ll probably have more fun writing it.

And isn’t that what this is all about?

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