• Sheila & Swede

Bring on the Action!

The passive voice is like a passive lover. No fun. If you want to excite your readers, learn to master the active voice and they’re sure to finish your book with a smile on their face.


What is the passive voice?


Ever felt like sitting around doing nothing at all? Maybe you have a stack of bills to pay, or homework due the next day, but you just need to let your mind rest for a bit. Or you know you should go to the gym, but that would require you to get up and actually move. So you don't. You're the opposite of active. You're passive. Characters doing nothing at all aren't that much fun to read about, are they? If they're not physically active, they at least need to be mentally active. Not passive.


Now, how does this apply to voice? One definition for the passive voice is that the subject of the sentence doesn’t perform the action of the word, or isn’t even there. Every language has its own normal word order, which makes the sentences flow naturally. Twisting this order around makes it harder for readers to process the information. In English, the normal word order is Subject - Verb - Object. Changing this word order gives you the passive voice and makes the sentence clunky.


Say your character is an editor, and he/she has missed an important deadline, jeopardizing the future of his/her company and his/her very temperamental client. Which of the following sentences would you prefer to read?


a) The deadline was missed by the editor

b) The editor missed the deadline

c) The deadline was missed


Who is the subject? What is the object? What is the action? Hint, the editor is a living, breathing person capable of performing actions. The deadline is what it is.


In the first sentence, we're making the deadline the key player. Same with the last sentence. Are you writing a story about a deadline or about an editor?


When the passive voice works


In certain cases, the passive voice that leaves out the subject entirely (The deadline was missed), has its advantages. Maybe you don’t know who was responsible for something, or maybe you know but don’t want to reveal it to the reader just yet, building suspense for later.


Example:

Danielle’s eyes fell on the panel by the door and a chill went through her body. The alarm had been disabled.


If you want to leave the reader with a “punch word” or incite action, the sentence will have to be structured so that the punch word is at the end.


Example:

The deadline must be met immediately.


When the sentence focuses on the action and not the actor, you can and should use the passive voice.


Example:

The important thing here is that the deadline is met.


Active or Passive Voice?

The active voice


By process of elimination, if it’s not passive, it’s active. When the subject is acting, the sentence is active.


Examples:

Carly (Subject) grabbed (Action) a cup of coffee (Object) on her way out.

Michael (Subject) stroked (Action) Carly’s cheek lovingly.


So how do you master the active voice in your fiction? Now that we've determined what the passive voice is, we can avoid it. Make sure to review your manuscript for tell-tale signs of the passive voice.


If you've used the word "by" following the verb "to be" in some form (is/was/has been/will be), and you have a person after "by", it's likely you have a passive sentence on your hands. Turn this type of sentence into an active one through putting the subject first.

Instead of: The house had been ransacked by burglars.

Try: Burglars had ransacked the house.


Instead of: All the arrangements will be made by the concierge.

Try: The concierge will make all the arrangements.


Of course, the active voice is extremely important when you're writing romance - specifically the love scenes. If your sentences are passive, can the reader really feel like he/she is in the moment, experiencing it right alongside the characters?


Keep your readers engaged by using the active voice

I did some digging around in my document folders and found some old attempts at love scenes, written half a decade ago. I hope I've improved since then! Let's see how we can improve some of my passive sentences... (Don't worry, I'll keep it clean)


Then: "His hands eventually found hers on the wall, interlacing their fingers ..."

Now: He interlaced their fingers, keeping her hands pressed against the wall...


(This was apparently from a shower scene... I still do this, by the way. I often write about people's hands as if they are acting independently of the person those hands belong to. I could give you another example from that same scene, but it wouldn't be particularly clean.)


Then: "His hand went to the back of her head, holding her close."

Now: He cupped the back of her head and held her close.


There you have some of my examples of passive sentences and some examples of how to make them active. Have you spotted any passive sentences in your work? Let us know in the comments!


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Post Author: The Swede


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