Fiction writing: When you might want to use passive voice

As writers, you may have heard “show, don’t tell” as advice from other writers or instructors. This advice is all about using active voice rather than passive voice. You want to show the action happening rather than telling the reader what happened.

Passive voice is where the subject receives the action rather than doing the action. It is dependent upon the use of “to be” verbs such as is, was, am, were and has been. With passive voice there is no action implied. These verbs merely relay action.

Passive Voice Example:

The window was shut quickly by Elizabeth.

Passive voice isn’t necessarily incorrect; it’s just that it isn’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward or vague. It also can be wordy and it deflects who is doing the action – “mistakes were made”; “shots were fired.”

Caution: Not all “to be” verbs are always passive – I am holding the pen is still active voice since – the subject – am doing the action of holding the pen. To make this passive it would be – The pen is being held by me.

Active voice uses action verbs. The subject is doing the action.

Active Voice Example:

Elizabeth quickly shut the window.

This example is stronger since the subject – Elizabeth – is now doing the action. Using active voice gives your writing more immediacy and puts the reader into the middle of the action. Once the reader is involved in the action, it is harder for them to put down your book.

But there are times when you may want to use passive voice in your story. Here are some examples:

When you don’t know who was doing the action.

The jewels were missing.

In this case, the emphasis is on the item taken rather than who took them.

When what was done is more important than who did it.

Uncle Bob was killed today.

What is important is that Uncle Bob has died. It doesn’t matter how or who did it. Later characters may question those things but in the beginning, their only focus may be on the fact that Uncle Bob is dead.

When describing a secondary character through the main character’s POV.

Aunt May was a tall woman with wrinkled skin.

When you want to speed up the story.

Half an hour later, the tents were stowed and the fire dowsed.

A lot of mundane actions are now contained in that one sentence. It would have taken many more words to write that in active voice and nothing really would have been gained for the reader.

These are just a few examples. I am sure there are other instances where you may want or need to use passive voice – for variety’s sake if nothing else. Just do so sparingly.

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3 thoughts on “Fiction writing: When you might want to use passive voice

  1. Mark Lee says:

    What a great article! You easily make sense of the popular writing advice out there, including common sense for both sides of the fence.

    I’d love to syndicate this on The Masquerade Crew. If interested, see the following link.

    http://masqueradecrew.blogspot.com/2013/11/would-you-like-us-to-syndicate-post-of.html

    • schillingklaus says:

      The jewels were missing” is active voice.

      Amnyways, I like the passive voice, and I won’t be coaxed and coerced into avoiding it in my fiction, not by any advocate, or god, or King.

  2. […] Fiction writing: When you might want to use passive voice […]

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