A Crash Course in Passive Voice, Part 3: When to Use It

Hello hello! Welcome to our third and I SWEAR TO GOD last installment of our crash course in passive voice.

(Guess who went back through her ENTIRE manuscript to edit just for passive voice as a result of writing this series? And then noticed she has a tendency to use “it was” and “there was” far too often and edited for those, too.)

As you may remember from Friday’s post, writers are generally supposed to avoid passive voice for the following reasons:

  • It’s wordier than active voice.
  • It can be more confusing than active voice.
  • It’s often less interesting than active voice.
  • It makes the agents performing the actions feel less active.
  • It creates narrative distance that might make it hard for readers to connect with the characters and events of the story.

BUT. Passive voice exists! It’s part of the language! Which means…

Surely there are some reasons to use it, right?

It’s been too long since E last watched Fiddler, and it’s starting to show.

SO. Let’s look at some examples from the Chosen Grandma story. Some are from dialogue; others are from narration. On the whole they’ll illustrate several different reasons you might choose to use passive rather than active voice. Since these sentences are more complex than the examples in the last two posts, I’ll italicize the passive-voice verbs in each one for clarity.

But a carpet that has been named anticipates one’s needs.”

Passive voice can be used to talk about an action happening in general – here, Amir is talking about what happens, in general, when flying carpets are named. A specific agent is not necessary because this sentence talks about what happens regardless of who names the carpet.

Note: I could have used general-you or “one” as a general active agent, i.e. “a carpet you have named” or “a carpet one has named,” but the first felt too informal for Amir while the second felt too formal. Passive voice hit the right level of formality and felt more natural for his character.

He was spared further explanation by Clem’s reappearance with a bag of chips and two candy bars.

Similarly, I chose to use passive voice in this sentence because it would read awkwardly otherwise. The active agent of the sentence is a lot longer than the object, so active voice would get cumbersome.

The street that ran along the river had been roped off.

Her carpet, crumpled and exhausted, had been found and thrown onto a nearby table.

In these examples, passive voice is used to talk about specific actions performed by an unknown agent. We don’t know who roped off the street or found the carpet, nor are we going to find out, nor do we care. The point is not the actions, which have been completed off-screen (so to speak), but the images: a street roped off, a crashed flying carpet crumpled on a table.

Note: As with the previous example, I could have used active voice – in this case, by saying something like “someone had roped off the street.” I do like using this construction sometimes! For example:

Someone was lounging against the building.

Why did I use active voice here but not in the above examples? Because in the above examples I wanted to center an image and the object of the action. In this example, however, I want to center the “someone” because we are going to find out who it is, as is Edna.

But it was hard to think when you were thousands of feet up and the air was thin and you had been kidnapped by a woman on a dragon.

Similarly, in this example I want to focus not on the active agent (Clem’s kidnapper) but on Clem’s situation. Her situation remains at the forefront of this sentence because I used passive voice.

He said a small unit of Knights had been sent to Dominion on an assignment.

Finally, in this example, passive voice is used to avoid accountability. Who sent the Knights? The sergeant’s certainly not going to tell Edna, who’s looking for answers about her son’s death. This is a common use of passive voice in real life – think of politicians saying things like “mistakes were made” to avoid admitting they made the mistakes.

Basically, passive voice can be used when you want to emphasize or center on the object or its situation rather than the active agent.

It can also be used sparingly when active voice would make for a more awkward sentence. “Sparingly” is the operative word here! Every usage of passive voice in fiction should be carefully considered in line edits. Why are you using it here? What does it accomplish? Would an active sentence better serve the story in this spot?

Read the whole series on passive voice!

3 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Passive Voice, Part 3: When to Use It

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