Tuesday 17 May 2011

Using the passive voice in creative writing

I am in the process of editing my work in progress, and at the moment I am having fun taking out my inappropriate uses of passive voice. In doing so I have had to clarify my thoughts on this subject, so I decided to write them down. I hope my thoughts on this will be of some interest to you.

The use of passive voice in creative writing is widely frowned upon, yet this very statement uses it. Are there times when passive voice is better?

What is passive voice?

Consider the phrase: Roger burned the toast.

The action is “burned”, the object of the action is “toast” and the subject of the phrase is “Roger”, the one performing the action. The fact that Roger performed the action is emphasised.

If I rearrange this sentence so that the object of the action becomes the subject of the phrase, and the subject is no longer the one performing the action I get:

The toast was burned.

The latter phrase is in passive voice. This phrase removes the emphasis from the performer of the action, Roger, and places it on the object of the action, toast.

The grammatical construction is such that a finite form of the verb to be precedes the past participle of the action verb. Generally the past participle is recognised as being the form that ends in “ed”.

Finite form of to be + past participle = passive voice

What is not passive voice?

There are some common misconceptions about passive voice. One of the most common relates to the use of the past progressive (otherwise known as past continuous) form. This is a phrase containing was or were followed by the present participle.

Consider the example: The toast was burning.

This is active voice. It is the past progressive form, and the verb burning is the present participle. This is generally recognised as the form ending in “ing”.

The past progressive form is used to indicate one of the following:

Concurrent actions. Action a was happening while action b was happening. I was working while you were watching television.

An event during a continuous action. Event a happened while action b was happening. I stopped work when you were making dinner.

Creating atmosphere. In the pub the landlord was washing glasses. Several people were playing cribbage while others were drinking or talking.

In order to put this passage into passive voice I would say: In the pub the glasses were being washed. Cribbage was being played and there was drinking and talking.

Clearly this is a much weaker way of writing the passage.

Why is the use of passive voice frowned upon?

The principle reason passive voice is frowned upon is because the statement is weakened by the loss of emphasis on what or who is carrying out the action. In our first example:

Roger burned the toast

We know exactly what happened. When placed in passive voice:

The toast was burned

We lose a key piece of information about the event. This weakens the statement.

Why is the use of passive voice sometimes the right approach?

I have breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and when it arrives it is poorly prepared. At this point my narrative may say:

The toast was burned and the eggs overcooked.

The obvious fact that someone in the kitchen did this need not be stated. Indeed, the reader would be frustrated by the irrelevance if the author told them it was a cook called Roger.

Such use of passive voice is not only acceptable, but it can be preferable to the active voice alternative.


  1. Bookmarking this page!

    I was just thinking about passive voice--and how it was defined, exactly. This is a great help. :)

  2. Ah, passive voice. One of my big issues.

  3. I have been struggling lately with the overuse of p.v. You are right--p.v. weakens the writing. Thanks for the mini-lesson.

  4. Thought provoking post, thanks.

    I completely agree there are times when passive voice can be extremely useful when you want to change the emphasis of a sentence but the active voice is much more preferable for immediacy and clarity. Forgive me for asking, though, - on your last example, aren't burned and overcooked being used as adjectives not verbs?

    And speaking of rules (sort of) I've deliberately broken one and left you a fourth, and special, Tag on my blog.

  5. Just twigged - they can be either! As I said earlier - thought provoking! Great post.

  6. @Dorothy; Sometimes I have to stare at it for a few minutes to figure it out. The English language is a wonderful, but confusing thing!

    Many thanks for the Tag :-)

  7. Great post. It was pointed out to me that JKRowling writes in passive voice and that is why I found her hard to emulate as a writing exercise. Now I know I might do better. Passive voice certainly has a direct way of describing what has happened. :O)

  8. Hi Tony, this sounds just like one of my English lessons! Passive voice definitely has a place, but not in a racy fiction piece. I love the way you put it all together.

    The best with your revisions. Am doing the same thing. I struggle with head hopping. Maybe I'll write a post about that.


    Romantic Friday Writers Second Challenge - LOST - Friday 20

  9. All the best for your revisions. They're fun to do, I think.

    A very good post about passive voice. Good examples, too. Occasionally in fiction you might use passive voice, but usually as Denise says, you want movement.

    And thanks for stopping by and congratulating me on my memoir. You have a wonderful, optimistic smile that cheers me up.

    We have to persevere if we're ever going to get there. Not sure I can do it again, but I'm going to try!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  10. Great post, Tony. I tend to overuse the passive voice. Loved the examples and will bookmark this page. Your examples explained it so well, there is no doubt in my mind now, regarding passive voice.

    Best of luck with the revisions.

  11. Thanks all for your great feedback. It's reassuring to hear that I'm not the only one who has issues with this :-)

  12. I still slip on passive voice. It likes to sneak in. I try to limit my 'wases' or rewrite a sentence without them.

  13. Great point. Passive voice is one of those things that should be tolerated if used well, but that are abused too much. So if passive voice is good way to bring something across, good. If it doesn't, it can make it look as if the characters are exposed to the whimsy of fate and nature and can't/won't do anything to change or react to their situation.


  14. Thanks, Tony! I think this really helps clarify some things about passive voice. There's definitely more to think about. It's not a case of searching for every "was/be" and trying to replace it. Thank you!

  15. Thanks for clearing up the "was" misconception. I think it always sounds in the act of. Sometimes it's useful.

  16. Hey, Tony,

    A terrific post on passive voice. Wow you truly nailed it. Thanks for the great examples and have a terrific weekend.

    Give my best to Margo!

  17. You should check out the blog Missed Periods and Other Grammar scares (there's a link from my blog) and merge your grammatical talents.

    As a teacher, I saw bravo to your active voice quest. But, as I tell my advanced composition students: good writers master the rules so they can break then and still be brilliant.

  18. Tony this is a great reference. I don't always think about what is coming out of my brain when I start writing. I just let it flow without thinking which tense I am in or anything else. But when I go into editing mode this will be most useful. Thank you.

  19. You've outlined active/passive very nicely. I remember years ago in a critique group someone pointed out my use of passive voice and I had no idea what they meant. I could have used this excellent description at the time, and it is still relevant. When I edit I look for "was" to see if I can use a better verb. I also struggle with the whole "show, don't tell" thing!

  20. I know that I stumble on passive voice. I need a good line editor to catch it. I have a great editor now, but all the professionals use at least two.

    I tagged you at my blog today.