The car was kicked by Eloise.
The arrow flew toward the target once Billy released it.
A bright rainbow behind the church steeple could be seen by all.
The sentences above all share a common problem. Can you see it? I tried to make it increasingly difficult to spot as they progressed. Read them again with that in mind. Find anything? If not, don’t feel too bad.
Each sentence was written in passive voice. Meaning what? The action is being done to the subject, not the other way around. Three things create passive voice: “to be” verbs, sentence structure, and telling. The above sentences could all be fixed by tweaking their structure. Active voice powerfully moves your character through the scene. Passive voice does not.
Writing in active voice enables the reader to turn words into pictures. Passive voice creates awkward sentences, which don't sound smooth when read out loud.
But wait! How can you tell for sure if your writing is active or passive? One way to identify passive voice in your writing is to test out how strong your verbs are. Weak verbs (like “wandered”) don’t create a picture. Strong verbs (like “ran”) create a picture. “To be” verbs (like is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been) are a surefire way of indicating passive voice. What do I mean? Read this sentence in which I’ve marked the “to be” verb: All of Jake’s games were planned by me. If this had been Active, it would’ve read: I planned all of Jake’s games. No “to be” verb! Yay!
Don’t get me wrong, passive voice does have its place in fiction. But there are only two situations where it should be used.
1. When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The abandoned vehicle was apparently found by the Sheriff during the early morning hours.
2. When the character in the situation is not important: The rainbow could be observed by all after the thunderstorm.
If you identify a section of passive voice in your writing consider revising it. Your reader can’t really experience things if they are backward.
So, to sum all of that up, passive voice is when your character is being acted upon by the subject: The airplane was driven by Joe. Active voice is when your character is acting on the subject: Joe drove the airplane.
Just so you can see what those first sentences would look like revised, I’ve rewritten them for you. (The subject is in red, the object is in blue.)
Eloise kicked the car.
Billy released the arrow and it flew toward the target.
Everyone could see the rainbow behind the church steeple.
Happy New Year, everyone! Stay tuned for next month's E-Zine: Motivation Reaction Units.