Writers Workshop – Writing Lesson on Passive Voice

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you know I wrote one called Indie Writers Miss Golden Opportunity.  I talk a lot about learning to write, so I thought I would do some posts about this topic because I am getting asked about writing techniques and writing skills.  It seems like it’s time to address some of this for the indie writer (and other writers too).  So let’s get the Writers Workshop started!

Learning to Write

Let’s face it, learning to write is not easy – but many people seem to think it is.  Crafting a quality novel takes a lot more than just a grasp of your native language.  There are many subtle nuances that can improve writing and make your novel scintillating and hard to put down.  Today we’re addressing…

Passive Voice

First, you have to understand the active voice: the subject of the sentence performs the action.  In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon.  This may not seem like a big deal, but read these two sentences:

Reed discovered that his neighbor was a thief.

It was discovered by Reed that his neighbor was a thief.

The first one is a much stronger statement, and usually in fiction writing, you want to have strong, powerful sentences that move a story forward.  The active voice conveys much better than the passive voice (yes, there are exceptions).  Certainly in mystery and thriller novels, my genre, you would want to use active voice because this heightens the suspense and thrills.

Writing Practice

In my last post, I said that a great, brave person stepped up and said he would let me post a snippet of his work for critique.  He had submitted this to me personally and I gave my suggestions, and I’m sharing a bit here because it’s great to get real examples to work from.  I hope that you will chime in with quality pointers yourself, but please be respectful – this is about all of us learning to improve our writing :)

Thunder boomed again and again, the thick clouds marched to its beat, effortlessly smothering the sun.  Blayke’s fingers sank further into the darkening puddle until he was shocked by something rough and icy, too large to close his hand around; certainly not the frog he was hoping for.  The young boy was afraid and tried to let go of the object but his hand was inexplicably stuck.

I’ve highlighted the passive phrases here – it’s a bit of a rewrite but my suggestions would be something like his hand struck something rough and icy.  He jerked his hand away.  This SHOWS the action and it gives the reader a more powerful visual than he was shocked does.  I think the other two bolded statements could be rewritten as well.

When the last morsel was gone she stood, “Well Flux, I suppose it’s time to pack up my whole life.  Do you think it’s too late to change her mind?”  Flux didn’t answer, just led the way to the door.

Some might call this nitpicking, but what if the writer said when the last morsel disappeared…it’s a stronger way of saying the same thing.

Applying This To The Entire Novel

If you think about the above paragraphs, it’s easy to say this is just a little bit, no big deal.  But a whole novel written this way is a different story (punny) all together.  Yes, there are times when the passive voice is better, and maybe even necessary.  But overall, you want to avoid this because it drags your writing down.

So, I again thank my anonymous writer for allowing me to use a bit of his work as an example.  Please weigh in with your comments so we can all learn.  Thanks!

REMINDER – contest for a FREE KINDLE – and I decided to throw in some free books!  Mystery novels, thriller novels, horror novels – how can you miss this?  Visit www.reneepawlish.com for all the details.

Image: Againstar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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11 Responses to Writers Workshop – Writing Lesson on Passive Voice

  1. Glad to see a nice, sensible discussion on active vs. passive voice – along with the admission that there IS a time and a place for passive voice.

    I once had a writer INSIST to me that “they had moved to the city” was passive, because moved was preceded by a form of “to be” or “to have.” I tried explaining that no, “they had BEEN moved to the city” would, indeed, be passive – but that her example was merely a demonstration of the past perfect tense.

    I got sworn at for that. :)

  2. I’ve just been going through edits from a friend and changed this very thing in my own writing!

  3. Even though I know passive voice is bad, bad, bad, it always manages to sneak in from time to time. Thanks for the reminder on why it really should be avoided. We discuss passive vs. active often in my writing group, I will passing this link along!

  4. R.P. Kraul says:

    Renee, good article. Passive does have a place–but generally that’s where the actor is not known or is unimportant (i.e., the bridge was built in 1932). Absolutely, though, unintentional passive is weak and generally quite obvious.

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