Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

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Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby Beethovenfan » 03 Dec 2011, 17:12

I am certain I learned about passive and active voice way back in the 7th or 8th grade, but it was one of those things that never really stuck. If only I could have viewed back then what I would be doing now, I could have saved myself a LOT of editing. I recently re-learned what passive voice is (and she's not what I thought she was!), and now I'm having to go back through my MS, as well as my current WIP, and wage war on the ß¡┴¢h!

Passive voice is insidious and seemingly inocuous until you sit back and look at a scene and wonder what it is that's just not working. It's HER! Miss Passive, and she is NOT your friend. So, to save my fellow Bransforumers (those of you who, like me, did not know what you had back in 7th grade) from having to stumble upon the meaning of passive voice accidentally (as I did) and have to go through years of wandering aimlessly in the dark.

Am I being too dramatic?

Passive Voice: when the subject in a sentance is neither a doer nor a be-er (no I don't mean a nice cold one) in a sentance but is being acted upon by something.
Example: Trees were blown down in the wind. Trees (the subject) do not blow themselves down. Something acted upon them to blow them down.

Active Voice: when the subject of a sentance is either doing or being something.
Example: The wind blew down the trees. This time, the wind is the subject, and it is actively doing something.

This is not a difficult concept, but for some reason I never got it until now.
Hope this little lesson helps someone else out there as much as discovering it has done for me.
OK, back to my WIP and my war.
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~ Ludwig van Beethoven
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby polymath » 03 Dec 2011, 19:05

A next tier of passive voice proficiency is when to have and to get verbs disguise passive voice.

Eloise had elective surgery.
Kinston got beat up.

A yet next tier of passive voice proficiency is when to use it artfully for impersonal use and/or passing responsibilty, and for animacy: subject demotion and/or object promotion, when a recipient of an action is more important than a doer, or a subject, action-doer absent altogether for when the doer is unknown, unimportant, or not worth mentioning. The above two examples are animacy passive voice situations.

One hundred tap water samples were tested for toxic compounds. (By the documeter of the test results.) So, in order to maintain an objective, impersonal standing, upright pronoun usage is frowned upon: The upright prounoun I. Also an example of animacy.

The vase was broken yesterday. Passing responsibility for breaking the vase to the vase by omiting the doer. Also animacy.

Bart was blown away by the light show. Animacy. Note, besides the to be auxialliary verb, main verb clause, the preposition by signals passive voice, as is sometimes the case for preposition usage.

Like with any writing principle, passive voice has its advantages and disadvantages. A principle worth considering in the context of passive voice is artful sentence variety. A leavening of passive voice among active voice can be spicey.

I had this passive voice thing beaten into me by prescriptive grammarian nuns with metal-edged rulers back in seventh grade during English sentence diagramming instruction. Oh so many decades ago. So naturally, I rebel against their prescriptive authority.
Last edited by polymath on 19 Dec 2011, 01:54, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby Whirlochre » 05 Dec 2011, 06:25

The active voice has its place, for sure, but let's not fall into the trap that all things 'passive voice' are the death knell of readable writing.

Take the trees example.

In raw active vs passive terms, yes, it makes much more sense to write 'the wind blew down the trees' rather than 'trees were blown down in the wind'.

But if you were a first person hobbity creature in a land being ravaged by the magicks of some weird-bearded Tolkienesque uber-overlord, would you necessarily report this event in such a writerly objective way? My guess is that your focus might be on the homely, friendly trees, being swept away by the strange all-powerful wind - your familiar panorama, devastated by the evil and miraculous. Outside my window right now I see a sheet of plastic billowing in the wind from the roof of my greenhouse. Crank up the wind and my greenhouse flies from my garden like some tornado-flung extra in a disaster movie. Seeing the wind as the agent here lends me a certain power. Seeing the shed or the tree flung into the air (passively) by the wind places me at a distance from the action which renders me a little more helpless. When it comes to disasters and threat, a little clever use of the passive voice can actively place your protag in greater perceived peril. So let's not write P.V. out of the script. It exists for a reason.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby Mira » 06 Dec 2011, 12:36

I'm a big user of the passive voice, and have to watch out for it. Thanks for the reminder! But, I also tend to rebel against rules. I really like what polymath said:

"A principle worth considering in the context of passive voice is artful sentence variety. A leavening of passive voice among active voice can be spicey".

Agree. A little dash here and there can add flavor.

But not for a main dish. Unless you want to write a book about insomnia.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby longknife » 10 Dec 2011, 11:28

Passive voice has it's place OR IT WOULDN'T EXIST.
There are reasons for using it.
Of course, in order to create action, using active moves the story along.
But, I've found that dealing with inanimate objects often calls for passive.

The tree leaves flutter in the gentle breeze.
as opposed to -
Tree leaves were fluttering in a gentle breeze.

Both are exceptions to the above.

Father Serra was limping along ahead of the other travelers.
as opposed to -
Father Serra limped along ahead of the other travelers - who were having difficulty keeping up.
[I'm certain both could be made active - but does it fit the story?]
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby polymath » 10 Dec 2011, 12:43

Passive voice is a tough writing principle to fully realize its ramifications. Many writers have crossed their Rubicon's over passive voice, into conquering voice principles in general. I had my share of problems with passive voice not too long ago. Embarrassed myself more than once in workshops and such, compelling me to master active, passive, and static voices' principles.

I see static voice, I don't see passive voice in the examples. They do have the hallmarks of passive voice, to be auxiliiary verbs and prepositional clauses. However, the prepositional objects of the actions aren't in subject position. The doers or subjects of the actions are in subject position.

Passive voice syntax puts the object of an action in first position. Predicate in second position. Subject (doer) of the action in third position joined to the predicate with a preposition, or the subject is implied, or the subject is omited for animacy purposes or because the subject isn't known.

The tree leaves were fluttering. The leaves do the flutter action though caused by the gentle breeze.

Father Serra was limping. He's the doer of the action, though from an implied cause, whatever makes him limp.

Both have gerund verb predicate clauses. signaling ongoing action, past progressive tense. A static tense and voice, yes. Static, not passive voice.

The tree leaves were fluttered by the breeze, is passive voice.

I don't see how to write Father Serra's limping into passive voice without changing the syntax and main verb. Limping, Father Serra was pulled ahead by the water wagon's trailing rope.

Static voice isn't a taught topic. More often I've heard such sentences labeled weak voice, without much clarification of what was meant by "weak." Use active verbs, I was told. But when timely, judicious, and artful, static voice sentences are quite poignant, as are passive voice sentences. How can poignant be weak? Static, yes; weak, no, not always.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby Beethovenfan » 11 Dec 2011, 13:38

Oh man. Polymath, I can't even think about static voice. I'm still going through and editing for too much passive. But thanks for the heads up. Perhaps my simple mind can look for both at once. :/
However, I must add that going through and editing for passive voice has helped me make things much clearer. (Is it clearer or more clear? Ughh!)
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby polymath » 11 Dec 2011, 14:53

Beethovenfan wrote:Oh man. Polymath, I can't even think about static voice. I'm still going through and editing for too much passive. But thanks for the heads up. Perhaps my simple mind can look for both at once. :/
However, I must add that going through and editing for passive voice has helped me make things much clearer. (Is it clearer or more clear? Ughh!)

Static voice like passive voice is problematic when clarity is compromised. I'm considering a post on static voice, what it is, when it's problematic, when it's artful, whys and wherefores and how-tos and such, with ample examples.

The number one writing principle is writing for reading ease, Bar none. Clarity is certainly an attribute of reading ease. Clarity, though, balances against artfully ambiguous reporting, so readers can interpret subtext meaning. What's clear enough though artfully ambiguous depends on audience sensibilities.

"Much clearer," "more clear, or "much more clear" are all clear, concise, and easily read and understood, just with different degrees of attitude emphasis. Voice. The latter example feels to me the strongest voice, the middle the softest voice, the first a medium voice.
Last edited by polymath on 19 Dec 2011, 03:03, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby wordranger » 16 Dec 2011, 21:49

Passive and active is something that either you GET or you DON"T GET.

I spend so much time with my beta partners trying to explain it to them, but for some, it just does not stick.

I agree, that you can get a little spicy and slip a little passive in once and a while, BUT NOT ALL THE TIME.

I think it's hard for an author that is deep in his or her story, once they get stuck in the passive rut, to get out of it. It just keeps creeping in.
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Re: Passive vs. Active Voice - who is winning in your WIP?

Postby Sanderling » 19 Dec 2011, 01:20

wordranger wrote:Passive and active is something that either you GET or you DON"T GET.


I think this is mostly me. I mean, I understand the concept of it. But I think I'd have trouble classifying my own work one way or another unless it was really obvious examples of object and action. I read through a couple pages of my WIP and all I could do was give a mental shoulder-shrug.
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