This week at my critique group an interesting subject came up. One of the members had submitted a poem that I thought generally good, but had some problems with one stanza in particular. In this stanza, she was trying to conjure the emotional images of a battle with cancer by, in effect, listing some of the common headaches that come with it. It went something like this:
“There are treatment plans. There is nausea. There is weight loss and hair loss. There are doctors’ appointments and chemo cocktails…”
In and of itself, it’s just fine (especially when contrasted to the carefree life described immediately before). My objection was to her use of passive voice.
What really got my attention though, was the fact that two of the members present (admittedly, these two aren’t terribly experienced, especially in terms of writing theory) did not know what I meant by “passive voice.” I gave them a quick primer and now will do the same for the rest of us.
So what is “passive voice?” Passive voice is a style of sentence construction that emphasizes the direct object, rather than the subject. It is the opposite (of course) of active voice. Instead of your character doing something, either something happens to your character, or nothing happens at all.
The touchdown pass thrown by John Smith was fifty yards long.
John Smith threw a fifty yard touchdown pass.
The first sentence is written in passive voice, the second in active. The active voice is shorter, simpler, and more powerful. One of the most noticeable features of passive voice is that it blunts the power of a sentence, diffuses it. It is passive.
John was in traffic for two hours.
John wasted two hours in traffic.
Again, the first sentence is passive voice and the second, active. The key difference here, and one way to test our writing for passive voice, is to ask what happens in the sentence? In the first example, nothing really happens. John was. That’s not much of an action. In the second, the action is clear and easily described: “John wasted two hours…”
If there is little or no real action, the sentence is probably in passive voice.
Which brings me to what I think is the sneakiest passive voice phrase in the language. I say that because I constantly have to guard my own writing against it. That is the phrase “there are” and its many variations. It can involve quite a bit of creative wording to avoid using this phrase, because it is so useful. Because of that reason, we see it everywhere. But it is very weak and should be avoided.
Consider your story calls for the lead character to walk through the front door of a house she’s never been in before. As the author, we need to provide the reader a quick description of the interior to orient them for the scene about to take place.
She paused just inside the doorway to take a quick look around. To her right, there was a living room with a sofa and two armchairs facing a stone fireplace.
In the second sentence, nothing happens. The living room just “is.” It isn’t very creative. This description holds no drama, no character. It’s too easy. As creative writers, we need to force ourselves to do more, to make it better.
She paused just inside the doorway to take a quick look around. To her right, a living room featured a blond leather sofa and matching chairs facing a stone fireplace.
It’s not great, but it is an improvement. “There was” is almost a meaningless phrase. It’s cliché. It’s too easy. It does not add anything to the narrative, either through plot or character. One could do worse than to simply remove every occurrence of this phrase in her rough drafts and try and find a more dynamic way to describe the situation.
Because using passive voice weakens your prose and slows it down. Neither of which are features we’re trying to achieve. Every single sentence must function to move your story toward its inevitable conclusion in the most powerful manner you can manage. Passive voice only works against that purpose.