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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Active vs. Passive Smackdown!

[first, I have to celebrate: I have 20 blog followers- yay! It might seem like a small number, but it is a milestone nonetheless and I'm excited about it. When I hit 30 I've decided I'll do a prize drawing! ]

Now back to the matter at hand..


Okay, I have a question and a confession. First, the confession: I have not taken any writing classes. Nope, not a single one! I've studied and read a lot and gleaned much from writing communities, but I have never taken an actual course on writing/storytelling. Oh the horror! So forgive me if I am "wrong" in my thinking about the topic at hand. I don't know any better.

The subject of active/passive voice is one that comes up quite frequently, and though you may hear it referred to as being a hot debate, there really only seems to be one acceptable view: Active voice is always preferred to passive, duh.

But is this true? Or is this the latest fad coming out of the writing classroom being applied with reckless abandon? Lately I've found many books take active voice to extremes and I find myself as a reader really longing for some passive passages (like that?) Don't get me wrong- active voice is a concept I am so thankful to have learned about and I find it very powerful in crafting a riveting piece of prose. I just think there comes a point where it goes too far. I wonder if I am alone in where I think that point lies- because, again, I don't know any better. I truly might be in a very lonely minority of people who long for a bit less active voice in narrative fiction. I've kept silent on this for awhile now, for fear of revealing my naivety and lack of proper writing education. But I can't ignore it anymore. I'm revealing my hand. I simply must know if there are others like me.

Which brings me to the question, and my reason for this post:

How do you feel about the active/passive issue?

What irks you about the other camp's position?
What do you like most and least about the process of creating active passages?
If you are an active voice zealot, convince me of its virtues.
If you are a passive voice advocate, please speak up and let me know I'm not alone!


Thanks for stopping by- please join in the discussion!


Terri Tiffany said...

I hear you. I've only taken one online course in writing and I think many of us are the same so don't apologize about that:) I do prefer active verbs as I can see where it makes the sentence stronger but as with most rules, there are always exceptions like with the dreaded -ly words. You just leave them in and go with it if it sounds better. I've been writing now for a long time 9for me) and I am finally going with my gut on this book--following most of the rules but writing it more the way I want it to be a good book if that makes sense!

Brooke R. Busse said...

Hello. This is the first post I've ever made on a blog and I didn't plan to today really but I know if I don't ask it's really going to bug me. This is going to sound really amateur, but what are active and passive voices?

Michelle Massaro said...

Welcome Brooke! Happy to have you!

Your question doesn't sound amateur to me, I've only recently become familiar with many of the "terms" writers use for things. Often I already knew the thing they were talking about but just hadn't known there was a name for it. Anyway, back to your question.

Passive voice is described as: A verb form or voice in which the grammatical subject receives the verb's action.

Active voice is described as: The verb form or voice in which the subject of the sentence performs or causes the action expressed by the verb.

Here are links with more explanation: http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/pasvoiceterm.htm

Easiest thing to do is give examples, so here goes (as best I can).

Passive: The lights were twinkling
Active: The lights twinkled

This is a basic example, and one in which the difference is not very noticable and either option would be fine to me. But I like it because the simplicity highlights the main difference. Usually the use of the word "was" or "were" is going to be your clue that passive voice is being used. It's easy to pick out in a passage of text when you are looking for it, but surprisingly difficult to come up with good examples on the spot, lol.

Passive: The room was dark.
Active: Darkness filled the room.

Passive: His face was red with embarrassment.
Active: Embarrassment reddened his face.

In these examples, the active voice is the better choice. But sometimes the active voice (in my opinion) can sound forced or out of place. Particularly when every line seem to sound the same, falling into the same formula.

Examples of this are not of much use when taken out of their context because on their own they sound great. Such as: "Stains splattered the ceiling" (instead of "was splattered"); "Fear gripped her" (instead of "was gripped with"); "Lips quivered at him" (instead of "were quivering"); "Trembling fingers opened the box" (instead of "were trembling"). Nothing wrong with those, they are great!

Except that after a paragraph full of those lines it smacks of effort (TO ME- I realize this is highly subjective and I may be alone, thus the reason for my questioning blog post).

Sometimes active voice takes the form of creating verbs out of nouns. A character didn't ball his hands into fists, his "hands fisted". (This is awkward to me as a reader.)

I hope this helps. Please feel free to come back and offer your opinion! And I bet from now on when you read you will be noticing passive/active sentence structure a lot more often! :)

Phoenix said...

Hi Michelle: One caveat to your examples. The room was dark is actually not passive. Forms of "to be" are not in themselves passive; only when they're coupled with other verbs do they become passive.

In the passive form, the subject is usually positioned where you expect the object to be. "The room" is the subject of The room was dark and it appears right where you expect the subject to be: before the verb.

Likewise, His face was red with embarrassment, though that one's a trickier construct. "Embarrassment" goes with "red" and together they modify the subject, which is "his face". In turning the sentence around, you've actually verbicized the adjective "red", making it perform the action: "reddening".

So sentences that are subject-verb-adjective, where the verb is a form of "to be" are not passive (He was tall, she was round-faced, the dog was brown).

To qualify as passive, the sentence needs to be turned around from the active example you gave, Darkness filled the room. The passive of that construct is The room was filled with darkness. And in this case, a writer might actually opt for the simple declarative statement The room was dark.

Like you, I hear a lot of writers decry the use of various grammatical forms such as adverbs, passive sentences and sentence frags when, in fact, between you and me, these writers simply don't yet understand the rules enough to know how to break them. By ruthlessly following the rules as they think they know them, their writing can only suffer. IMO.

Michelle Massaro said...

Thank you Phoenix! Yes, you are so right- I'm terrible and coming up with proper examples, I just know it when I see it. The first example of mine would have worked better as "the room was darkened" or such, but your examples are much better!

But the main thing that irks me is the verbicizing, as you put it, of both adjectives and nouns. It's an interesting device but once it is no longer unique it just stands out like a sore thumb. "Smacking of effort" is the phrase that leaps to mind.

Brooke R. Busse said...

Thank you so much for helping me. I had to reread it a couple times but I think I get it. All there is to it now is for me to actually do is to remember what it is. ^^

Michelle Massaro said...

You're welcome Brooke. I tried my best but I do think Phoenix's post was much more clear and accurate so that's the one you should try to remember. :P

Have a great day!