One of the most foundational blocks of grammar and writing is also one of the most often debated: Active vs. Passive voice. Undoubtedly, it’s been some time since any of us deliberately considered the differences between the two, or even the naming convention of them. Their uses are often contested. Most teachers, writers, or blogs will explicitly tell you to use active over passive voice, but both are necessary in the toolbox of any fiction writer. The trick is in knowing which one best suits the needs of your work.
Active voice occurs when the subject of your sentence acts upon the verb, often interacting with an object or a person. The sentence structure is very direct and clear. Following the pattern of subject-verb-object, it’s understandable why teachers prefer to teach it over passive voice. It offers faster pacing than passive ever could. Everything is laid out simply with no muss, no fuss. The most important thing to remember is who or what is taking the action. Keep an eye on the verb and make sure that it remains a regular verb.
Arthur wrote a paper.
Arthur is your subject.
Wrote is your verb.
Paper is your object.
The more beloved child of the two voices, you will primarily find an active voice in books you pick off a shelf. Most genres benefit from the smooth progression of active voice that carries the dialogue and story along. The biggest selling point is that an active voice gives your characters a sense of agency. They are placed into a position of control. Your MC takes the lead and interacts with the scene in their own unique way. It creates a hierarchy between your characters, placing your MC as the frontrunner of the show and everyone else as along for the ride, especially when you have alternating point of views. One example of this is JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, where much of the story advances through either Holden’s inner thoughts or his conversations with the people he meets. There is never a moment where Holden is not the focal point in any scene.
“I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
With passive voice your subject does not lead the actions; it becomes acted upon instead. Though teachers and mentors might advise you to only use active voice, passive voice has its place and purpose in the writing world. It is not a weaker writing style, nor is it a bad one. It has a lengthier structure than active voice, with object-form of to be-preposition-subject, wherein the subject is acted upon and features conjugations of the verb to be. A second type of passive voice is used when there is an unknown subject (i.e The note was left on the table).
Using the same example from earlier, let’s see how it shapes up in passive.
The paper was written by Arthur.
Paper is your object, now front and center
Was written is your verb conjugation
By is your preposition
Arthur is your subject.
Despite the hypercritical view of passive voice, there is almost an equal usage of it within books as active voice. One glorious example is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.
The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Adams’ use of passive creates a mysterious narrator that offers a degree of separation from the characters, but also a dry wit to the disembodied voice of the Guide. This degree of separation is what makes passive voice a compelling choice. By using passive voice, you remove the control from the characters (no one knows who made the Universe, and that unknown bothers them).
Some genres that greatly benefit from this in particular are horror, suspense, and mystery. It was previously mentioned that the pacing for passive would not work for everyday writing, or for genres that want to go at more than a slow walk, but horror? It was made for a leisurely stroll through the forbidden gardens, or that slow creep along your skin that makes you check your arm for a crawling creature. But what it also does is make sure that the MC is completely out of their mind with fear and discomfort, because they’re not given the power to respond to the story around them. Instead, the story is jerking them around and telling your MC what’s what.
The debate over active vs. passive voice is archaic and two-dimensional. Each one offers interesting depth and flavor that subtly enhances your story. Active voice provides clarity in structure, while giving control to your MCs to establish a power dynamic with their environment and other characters. In contrast, passive voice removes the control and drops your character into an oubliette, establishing a world of indomitable chaos. Both have different ways of engaging your readers, and both create versatile opportunities to build varying dynamics.