Snares, Pits, and Caltrops – The things to watch for, avoid, or be clever about – Part Two

Passive-Aggressive Authorship

I wanted to begin my talk about the Passive Voice with something clever. I was going to write some little passage where I skipped between active and passive voice while talking about active and passive voice. I decided against it. Instead, I wanted to get right into the meat and bones.

Well, after taking a step back to discuss one thing about passive voice: Not everything that sounds like passive voice is passive voice.

For example:

I thought I would go to the store later this evening.
The car was washed and dried by the time we got there.

Both of these sentences use a be-verb conjugation, but only one of them is actually passive. My example is pretty simple to identify, but there are times when it can harder to tell the difference. If the intent of the statement, for example, is to cause deflection, a sentence in active voice may seem passive.

The conventional way to determine the active and passive voice is simple to ask yourself who is performing the action. If you determine that the subject of the sentence is performing the action, then you know the sentence is in active voice, even if it sounds passive. This method is fine, until you’re a hundred and fifty pages into the manuscript and feeling like if you have to identify another action performer you’ll go crazy.

In those cases, other options are nice.

Professor Rebecca Johnson, shared here, came up with another way to identify the passive voice. This one is fun if you’re feeling playful, need a little levity in your editing, or if you’re watching a Walking Dead marathon on AMC.

If you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, and the sentence makes sense, then you have a passive voice. Note: sometimes you might need to remove another by some noun and replace it with by zombies. That is okay.

So, in my above examples:

I thought I would go by zombies to the store later this evening… doesn’t really make sense.
The car was washed and dried by zombies by the time we got there… is highly improbable, but makes sense.

Okay, so passive voice is not just a matter of auxiliary verbs (usually be, sometimes get) and cute tenses. It is also a matter of who is doing the action. In a passive sentence, an auxiliary verb is used with another verb and the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action.

Now that we have down what is and is not passive…what about using it?

The rule these days: Don’t.

Now that we have that silliness out of the way…

You’ll want to use the passive voice sometimes. We do it all the time. We do it when we talk about things. We do it to minimize responsibility. We do it to emphasize certain things. The passive voice is just like any other construction: when we use it, we want to use it effectively and appropriately.

First, what is happening in the scene? Are we looking at unrelenting action that has to keep moving forward? Then you want to avoid passive voice as much as possible. Passive voice can have the effect of slowing down action. If you have a sentence in passive voice, and it’s doing that, then restructure.

Unless you need to slow the action. That’s a good time to kick in the passive voice. The best way to do this is to make the subject of your passive sentence, the recipient of the action, the focal person in the scene. If you have an intense car chase that is going to end with one of the participants in the chase hitting an unwitting bystander, then end chase with that event in the passive voice. The focus suddenly goes to the bystander, whose tragedy ends the chase, and brings the intense action to a screeching halt, which you want to convey in the scene.

Do you have a villain that you don’t want to identify, but you need to show what he or she does? Passive voice. You won’t write the whole passage in passive voice, of course. But you will make the victim the focus of the sentences, switching between active voice when the victim takes action or responds, and passive when something is done to your victim.

Similarly, the passive voice can be used to direct focus. Parents learn that their child was the victim of a terrible hit and run accident. A car struck little Billy is active, but the car’s placement in the sentence first unconsciously places importance on it, when the importance in the scene is Billy and the effect the accident will have on his parents. Billy was struck by a car places puts Billy first in the sentence, indicating he is the one who matters in the sentence.

Passive voice can also help emphasize other things as well. Someone stabbed Michael with a spoon is a pretty active and straight forward sentence. On the other hand, Michael was stabbed with a spoon brings into focus the absurd weapon that was used to stab poor Michael.

There are more places to use Passive. Is someone hiding something? Passive voice is the ultimate deflector.

I accidentally wrecked the car when I had a temper-tantrum.

– vs –

I lost my temper and the car got wrecked.

Depending on what I said prior and what I say after, the second one may keep me out of a world of trouble. Assuming, of course, that the person I’m explaining myself to hasn’t caught onto what I’m doing. If your character needs to deflect responsibility, or you need to deflect responsibility from him as the narrator, the passive voice will do that effectively.

So, we’ve covered the most important times you’ll want to use the passive voice. So why do editors and English teachers discourage its use? Because passive voice can really bog down a sentence. If sentence after sentence uses it, or it keeps popping up where it isn’t needed, it distracts from the work. Anything that jars your reader from the scene increases the likelihood that they’ll put down the book. You don’t want that. You want your reader to be hooked in and keep going. You want them to feel pained at having to put your book down to sleep, work, or drive, and look forward to picking it up again later.

Here’s the basic rule: if you have a passive sentence that is served better in the active voice, change it. If the active voice puts emphasis where you don’t want it, fails to slow your action down when you need to, or becomes clumsy because you’re not revealing information or consciously trying to deflect, then don’t change it.

Alright, so that is the Passive Voice. There is one additional note. I mentioned that there are constructions using be-verbs that sound passive and are not, because the subject is still performing the action. I didn’t mention one construction, and I should. This one is especially important if you’re not native English or if you have a habit of forgetting how we use words in multiple ways.

The lamp was broken.

This sentence may be passive. It may not be. Whether or not it is passive is dependent on what the use of broken is. Is broken a verb? Or is it a past participle being used as an adjective. If the latter, then the sentence isn’t passive. It is active voice describing a state of being. If broken is meant to be a verb, if I am describing a scene and the lamp breaks, then the sentence is passive.

It is important to note this because it will determine how you edit. While you can change the paragraph containing the lamp was broken to describe the broken lamp among other things, you may not want to do that. Maybe it is important to high light the broken lamp. It gets its own sentence apart from other elements in the scene.

So, when  you’re editing, if you can insert the word already between your auxiliary and the past participle and it does not change the meaning of your sentence, then it isn’t passive. Decide if the sentence is working in the paragraph, but don’t worry about its passive sound.

Well, that’s more or less Passive Voice. Sure, there’s more to consider. Some of those things tie into other grammar conventions, so I’m sure I’ll pick up on it then.

But not next time. Next time will be Tense.


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