Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

I uploaded a page of my chapter into an editing program I had considered purchasing. In less than thirty seconds, the screen blinked and then displayed this message: Be careful not to rely on passive verbs in your writing.

Yikes!

Had I really written something so “non-exciting” that they actually called it passive?

Yes; I vaguely remembered that term. I decided to refresh my memory. Here’s what I found.

Let’s start with the basics: a verb is an action word.

Example: Run, cry, hit, sing.

Depending on how you word a sentence, a verb can be passive or active.

Example of active verb:  

Jon beat Peter in a game of chess.

Example of passive verb:

Jon was beaten by Peter.

In the first example, the subject of the sentence (Jon) is doing the action. In the second, something is done to the subject.

The term voice refers to these two different ways of using verbs.

Passive voice is used most often in formal documents, research papers, and so on.

Active voice is used most often in creative writing (fiction).

Passive verbs are broken down into: present simple, present continuous, present perfect, past simple, past continuous, past perfect, future, and future perfect. There are good examples of all of these on the internet, so I won’t go into each here. 

Especially since my purpose here is to remind those of us writing fiction, that we need to make our writing exciting by using action verbs (active voice).

No; I didn’t purchase the editing program. But its blinking screen and its warning in red CAPITAL LETTERS will be forever etched in this writer’s brain.

Lights! Camera! Action!

One of the first rules of writing, is to begin your story, chapter, or scene by dropping your reader into the midst of the ACTION.

You ask, “But, what about the backstory?”

Well, you tell me. Which is more exciting? The beginning of Story A or Story B?

A)  Claudette, a forty year old nurse, was born in Kansas City, met and married Charlie right out of high school. Together they had three children, a cat, and a dog. Her husband died last year, her parents the year before that.

B)  Claudette crept from behind a cluster of large oak barrels on the deserted wharf. It would soon be dark. If she was going to attempt an escape, she would have to do it soon. With the gag still in place, she couldn’t scream for help. Her wrists were raw where she  strained against the ropes binding them. Surely those hoodlums had mistaken her for someone else—someone rich and famous. Charlie would never be able to pay such a high ransom. He didn’t do well in stressful situations, anyway. No, if she was going to get out of this alive, she’d have to do it herself.

My point is, that once you drop your reading audience in the midst of the story with your character, you’ll have plenty of time to feed them the backstory, a little at a time, in the form of ACTION.

I find it easiest to accomplish this kind of writing by VISUALIZING my characters DOING: talking, moving, reacting. It’s a book, but the characters still have to be SEEN in the readers’ internal eyes.

In a movie, actors SHOW us what they are doing. However, in a book, it is the author’s WORDS that help readers SEE what is going on. If they are just sitting there on a sofa, it is likely the book will soon be tossed aside. (Would you want to watch a movie where the character didn’t say anything, talk to anyone, express any thoughts??)

I have made myself lists of verbs, adjectives, exciting phrases, facial expressions, and so on. These are displayed on huge poster boards hanging inside my office closet.

I refer to the board, often. If I use a word or phrase from my list, I put a mark beside it. I strive not to use it again in the exact same way in that particular book. I mean, do you want to read “huge crocodile tears ran down her cheeks” every time Mary cries? It takes some creativity, but it IS possible to say the same thing in a variety of ways.

So, there you have it. A book is really a movie, in a different format. If you are a screenwriter, you can count on actors and actresses—even animation—to make your story come alive. But, a writer?  Well, you must rely on your words—actions verbs, colorful adjectives, emotionally laden. You’re a “one-man-show.

When you write this way, not only is the book a more exciting read, the entire writing process becomes more exciting for you, as well. There are actually times I feel my heartbeat and breathing accelerate along with my character’s. My mouth goes dry when his does. My hands really and truly shake on the keyboard.

Now, that’s action!

And this is “a wrap!”