Passive Voice in Fiction

The only advice I’ve heard about passive voice in fiction is: Don’t Use It. This is me offering more nuanced advice.

What is the Passive Voice?

Readers with a passion for grammar, second languages, or scientific writing will likely know what the passive voice is. But writers of fiction don’t always.

Sentences with an active voice (or active construction) are vanilla. They commonly take the form subject-verb-object. For instance, “The pirate keelhauled the stowaway.” The subject of the sentence (“The pirate”) is active in performing the verb (“keelhauled”) to the object (“the stowaway”).

Passive construction is sneakier, “The stowaway was keelhauled by the pirate.” See how the object of the active sentence became the subject, and the subject snuck around back to be the instrument of the verb? This is “passive” because the entity that performs the action serves an instrumental role (indicated by the word “by” or sometimes “with”).

Why Avoid Passive Voice?

One reason passive writers should avoid passive voice is that it can disguise a lack of imagination. The active sentence, “The pirate keelhauled” screams for completion: Who was keelhauled? I MUST KNOW. Whereas the passive sentence, “The stowaway was keelhauled” is sedentary (bold indicates passive verb). An inattentive writer might fail to ask: who did the keelhauling? But readers will, and they will feel confused. They might backup and re-read earlier sentences.

This is exactly what I did when I read “I was offered a slice of pizza as I was being introduced,” from the story “Birds Without Wings” by Rebecca Zahabi in the May/June 2020 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This sentence has two passive constructions, indicated in bold. Now Zahabi’s prose is strong (with few passives), like most every story in F&SF. But I submit this particular sentence would be stronger were the passive constructions made active, “They introduced me and offered me a slice of pizza.” The subject “they” doesn’t tell us much, but we know that we needn’t worry about a specific someone doing the introducing and pizza-offering. We can read on.

For other reasons to eschew passives, consider this example, which I adapted from a work of amateur fiction:

I feared my efforts would be discovered, or my enemies would decide to do away with me or I would be captured again and put to death. I was besieged by an army of worries.

What’s wrong with it?

  • It’s verbose because passive voice requires a helper verb (“be,” “was,” etc.)
  • It’s discursive, which suggests detachment during a time of heightened emotion.
  • It delays indicating who is so worrying (i.e. the narrator’s enemies), which can jar a reader and force him to revise his mental image.

Here is the same example with passive voice removed:

I feared my enemies would discover my efforts, or they would decide to do away with me, or I would be captured again and put to death.  An army of worries besieged me.

(Did you notice how only two of the passive constructions changed? That’s because in English passive constructions are sometimes identical to declarative sentences that use verbs of being.)

How is it improved?

  • 2 words shorter (5.7%). That doesn’t seem like much, but wouldn’t be you disinclined to read a work of fiction if more than 1 in 20 words were bloat?
  • Less discursive, the emotion is clearer.
  • We know who is fearsome right away.

When is Passive Voice a Good Idea?

We’ve said that passive voice is discursive and detached. These traits can be desirable if your story quotes a scientific article, war plan, textbook, or bureaucratic memo. But there are other reasons, especially in dialog, the Wild West of fiction writing, where we commonly ignore grammar and punctuation. Why? Even though passive and active voice have the same literal meaning (they only differ by grammatical construction), speakers use them to mean different things.

Passive Voice Pro #1: Avoid over-sharing

Suppose you’re writing a story in which the leader of one group is about to make a concession to another party. Next she could say any of the following sentences:

  • Active-1:“My subordinate can arrange that.”
  • Active-2:“We can arrange that.”
  • Passive-1:“That can be arranged.”

Active-1 is the worst. It’s over-sharing. The other party doesn’t need to know who specifically is going to get it done. They just expect to get what’s being promised. Active-2 is better because a corporate entity (“We”) takes responsibility for the promise. The major question is whether the dodginess of Passive-1 is preferred over the more candid Active-2.

Why is the passive voice dodgy? Because it provokes the question, “Why aren’t you telling me who?”

Passive Voice Pro #2: Signal the subject is unimportant

Suppose another character has wronged your protagonist. That other character just apologized. Your protagonist could say either of:

  • Active-3:“You made mistakes, but we can get past that.”
  • Passive-2:“Mistakes were made, but we can get past that.”

Unless your protagonist is direct or fixated on accountability, Passive-2 will be the better choice. The subjectlessness of the passive voice indicates a will to avoid placing blame, especially when the appropriate subject (“You”) would be accusatory.

Passive Voice Pro #3: Subject is too unclear to specify concisely

Some subjects are too vague, mysterious, or mired in theological politics that we should avoid specifying them in dialog or narration. The passive voice is great for that.

Consider this slogan (displayed on a billboard I drive by every so often), “When faced with a situation we cannot change, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Suppose we tried to make the second clause active. We’d end up with something like: “God, the gods, Nature, the Universe, kismet, or whatever (depending upon your worldview) challenge(s) us to change ourselves.” Made active, it wouldn’t fit on the billboard. Even if it did fit, it would only be memorable because of its absurdity.

I imagine there are communities of English speakers, today or historically, that could avoid a verbose active construction because of their shared monotheistic worldview. Such communities agree God is the implied subject of this class of passives. But even then concealing the subject can be what listeners expect because God is too holy to name, which is why in the Greek of the New Testament passive voice commonly indicates God’s action.

What To Do When You Find Passive Voice in Your Writing

Whether a passive should stand in your story can’t be determined by a simple algorithm. There are cases where we can understand why it works and there are others where we let it stand just because the alternatives are worse.

A good rule of thumb is that, like adjectives and adverbs, every passive construction should be tested. If the writer finds a passive construction wanting, he should shift to an active construction or simply cut the passive sentence or clause.

I end by demonstrating this process by example. Consider, “Fynn was elected leader by his rebel crew.” The active form “Fynn’s rebel crew elected him leader” is cleaner than the passive but readers must resolve “him” as Fynn. If another male character were in the prior sentence, “him” may be ambiguous. We could try a slightly different active, “The rebel crew elected Fynn leader,” which is cleaner still but dispenses with Fynn’s possession of the crew, potentially crucial information. And notice that the passive has an upside: it’s poetic; it fits an iambic meter (Fynn was elected leader by his rebel crew). So it depends. The passive might be best.