Welcome to the Craft Corner. I am relatively new to the world of writing fiction, so as I step into landmines and blow up another writing convention, I will be sure to write about it here.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about the passive voice. What is it? Why is there such an uproar over it, and why are there so many older books written in the passive voice.
OK, let’s begin with the agent and the patient. In English grammar, there is a subject and an action, or verb in all sentences. That subject can alternatively be an agent of action in the sentence, or can be a patient of action. You can also add a clause, and add a patient, or agent.
Johnny ate the apples.
Apples were eaten by Johnny.
In the second sentence, Johnny is no longer the agent, or subject, of the sentence. Apples is the subject of the sentence. Johnny is also part of a prepositional phrase.
OK? Here’s where it gets interesting. In English you can write a perfectly grammatical sentence without the agent in the sentence.
Apples were eaten.
It’s got a subject and a verb, just no agent. Who ate the apple?
This, boys and girls, is the passive voice. So why is it so bad?
First of all, I need to apologize to all my graduate school professors at UC Denver for never getting this into my head. Sorry guys!
It can be awful for fiction for two reasons. 1.) It isn’t clear whose doing the action. 2.) It slows down the readers.
You, as the author, may know everything going on, but if you confuse the reader, there are literally thousands of other books that person can read. You want your prose to be clear. Don’t confuse the poor reader who's taken time out of their busy day to read your book!
Slowing down the reader is a bad, bad thing. If the reader gets bored, they might decide to put your book down and never come back to it. (Not me, I’ll struggle through. I’m no quitter!)
Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. You want a character to burst in to announce another character is dead.
The dinner party had started. The guests sipped a cucumber soup when Nurse McKenzie burst in, “Philip has been murdered!”
OK, not bad. But now the guests will have to play twenty questions about who. Was it the butler? The shifty eyed gardener? The duke? Who? What do you mean you don’t know? It might take a half of page of unnecessary dialogue before we find out the nurse doesn’t know who murdered Philip.
Wouldn’t the scene read better this way?
The dinner party had started. The guests sipped cucumber soup when Nurse McKenzie burst in, “Someone has murdered Philip!”
See? I don’t know about you, but this at least implies Nurse McKenzie doesn’t know who. Now the search for the killer can begin in earnest. (I still don’t trust that shifty eyed gardener.)
You know what my question is? Why was this sentence structure so popular?
Well I think there’s two reasons. First of all life was slower fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred years ago. I would imagine those who did read for leisure usually had more time to read and so could think longer about the prose they read. But really, I think it has more to do with polite society.
I woke up about a month ago before dawn and opened my laptop. I was receiving an update. The screen said.
WE ARE UPDATING YOUR COMPUTER.
It definitely freaked me out. Who were “We”? Why were “they” messing with my computer? No, I was much happier with the old updates.
YOUR COMPUTER IS BEING UPDATED.
Of course I knew someone had written the code that sent updates to my computer. The active voice just scared me for some reason.
Now imagine you’re working in a company in 1897 and money has gone missing. You have a suspicion, but you don’t want to accuse someone out in the open yet. Besides, that would be rude! So you tell the police “mistakes were made in accounting.” Assuming this is a true statement, then all eyes will fall to the accountant, without making you look like you’re accusing that person. (Assuming there’s only one accountant, of course.)
See, passive voice is a great way to imply something about someone without saying it directly. It can be a great tool in your writer’s tool chest. Just make sure to use it judiciously always with dialogue, never narration or an argumentative essay.
It’s also useful when you’re in a conversation and you’re talking about a person. You don’t have to constantly refer to him or her while talking.
“Mary is a horrible cook.”
“yeah, the steak was awful.”
“The chicken was burned.”
“Dinner was ruined.”
I hope this helps people get their heads around the passive voice. It’s an archaic way to structure a sentence. It also confuses readers and slows them down. So avoid it if you can. If you can’t, use it sparingly.
Jason Evans always wanted to be a writer, he just didn't know it. He grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1980s, living vicariously through movies and television. He earned two bachelors from the UC Santa Barbara and a Masters from UC Denver.
He is an educator, a writer, and a Bon Vivant.
Jason currently resides in Denver with the Fetching Mrs. Evans, his three dogs, and his cat.
You can read his blog at www.jason-evans.net
Like his author page on Facebook at Jason Henry Evans (Author)
Or, follow him on Twitter @evans_writer