Chad Perrin: SOB

31 March 2009

Yes, active voice is important in fiction.

Filed under: Writing — apotheon @ 04:40

Anyone who has gotten any kind of formal education related to writing — such as taking a high school English class in the US — should have heard that “passive voice is bad” at some point.

For those who have been away from English composition instruction for too long, active voice is where you describe someone doing stuff; passive voice is where you describe how stuff was done by the person. I’ll provide examples.

Active Voice:

David ate the candy.

Passive Voice:

The candy was eaten by David.

In short, a statement uses active voice when the subject of an action is the subject of the sentence, and it uses passive voice when the object of an action is the subject of the sentence.

It’s sometimes argued that the idea that passive voice is bad is a great rule of thumb for writing essays, but not so much when writing fiction. Artistic license comes into play; the best way to tell a story is whatever works best for telling the story, and the usual rules don’t apply. It’s the same excuse used to justify starting sentences with “but” or “and” in fiction, but that’s an annoyance for another day.

While reading Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I noticed some passive voice in the narrative. People really do use passive voice in everyday conversation, so of course using passive voice in dialog is pretty much necessary for writing a story set in anything approaching the modern age that is meant to maintain any kind of effective suspension of disbelief. The example I ran across, though, was in the narrative (as I said) — and it serves as a decent example of why you should avoid passive voice in fiction, too.

Another thing one tends to hear when receiving formal education in writing, specifically in relation to writing fiction, is “Show, don’t tell.” Your readers generally want to read a story, where events can surprise them and the narrative doesn’t come across like a dry, out-of-order recounting of events with a journalistic tendency to always state “the point” first and fill in explanatory blanks later.

Doctorow started a scene in the book thusly:

They ended up at the Timberline Wilderness Lodge and Pancake House, and Mimi clapped her hands at the silk-flowers-and-waterbeds ambience of the room . . .

That’s not the passive voice, though. That came at the end of the second paragraph:

as she poured into the tub the bottle of cheap bubble bath she’d bought in the lobby.

Tortured phrasing, events described out of order, and people whose actions happen to them rather than actually performing their actions, all add up to a bad case of telling rather than showing. Doctorow is telling us (the readers) that Mimi got some bubble bath soap a while ago, and is telling us this as though the bubble bath soap is the active party. More to the point, he’s telling us this rather than showing us through a description of what Mimi did. He didn’t show us how she picked out the bottle of bubble bath soap and paid for it — he told us that she had bubble bath soap, and bought it earlier from the lobby.

It comes across as the result of bad planning, at first glance, like the author simply forgot to account for the bubble bath before this point. At second glance, it looks like laziness, like a novel made it to publication without getting edited for stuff like this. More likely, Doctorow simply thought it was more “artistic” this way, and believed passive voice wasn’t really a problem for fiction, just like a friend of mine who said something to that effect a couple of days ago.

If Doctorow had decided to eliminate passive voice from that passage by rearranging the way he narrated the beginning of that scene, though, it would have made for better reading.


  1. Fascinating.

    I had no idea that the passive voice could be so subtle. (In other words: I didn’t know that rule.)

    Could you please re-write that sentence in the active voice?



    Comment by Ed Kirwan — 31 March 2009 @ 11:02

  2. Assuming you mean Doctorow’s introduction to the scene, I’d probably edit those two snippets to say something like this:

    They ended up at the Timberline Wilderness Lodge and Pancake House, and Mimi bought a bottle of cheap bubble bath in the lobby. She clapped her hands at the silk-flowers-and-waterbeds ambience of the room . . .

    . . . and later:

    as she poured the whole bottle of bubble bath into the tub.

    Does that answer your question?

    Comment by apotheon — 1 April 2009 @ 10:32

  3. Thank you, sir!

    You’ve answered my question perfectly.



    Comment by Ed Kirwan — 1 April 2009 @ 01:22

  4. Even more than dangling prepositions, passive voice shouldn’t be put up with.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 3 April 2009 @ 05:56

  5. When that had been read by me, it was something I had to agree with.

    Comment by apotheon — 4 April 2009 @ 08:55

  6. Appreciate the post. When using MS Word grammar check I get a lot of passive voice and never bothered to learn what it meant. Now, I know what to look for but it also seems a lot of practice will have to happen to become a proficient detector.

    Plus, I am running this through grammar check because I am scared I am using passive voice and don’t know it. Yes, I know grammar check is only 35% accurate, but better than nothing.

    Comment by Ronald Langston — 6 April 2009 @ 11:04

  7. Meh. I probably use passive voice a fair bit in really casual conversation like this, myself. It just really doesn’t help with writing a good piece of fiction, and is a definite no-no when engaging in any kind of formal writing; those are the times to be most wary of it.

    Practicing the use of active voice the rest of the time is probably good, too, though. Good luck with that.

    Comment by apotheon — 7 April 2009 @ 07:02

  8. When I was in college, my research professor required that we never use passive voice. We also had to refrain from first or second person, and never use the subject “One” (which is after all a stand-in for “I”). Writing a 40-page paper under those constraints was challenging, but it definitely improved my “natural” style by habit.

    Inanimate descriptions are all you get when the passive voice is used. When you use the active voice, the story comes alive.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 7 April 2009 @ 10:07

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License