Lucid Writing Advice VII by Antavius S. Flagg

5 ways to know if you have passive voice and fix it

Objects are acted upon
Limited Dialogue
Look for Was
A feeling of being in the past
The Answers
This article is a follow up on some of the topics I discusses in LWA V, but yet it deals with a type of voice that many beginning writers stumble into, and not by choice.

OBJECTS ARE ACTED UPON

Passive voice, unlike the more excited active voice, gives writing a sense of going no where. The bad thing is that most writers don’t even know their writing in the passive voice until it’s too late…when they finally relax and read their work. In passive voice everything just happens, and objects are acted upon. What do I mean by that? Look at the following passage in passive voice:

The soccer ball was kicked by Alan.

Note how the soccer ball was kicked by Alan, and example of an object being acted upon. Here’s that sentence in the active voice, and believe me its quite easy to fix:

Alan kicked the soccer ball.

Now we have a feeling of action because we have placed this sentence into the active voice. Here are more passive voice passages, and beside them their counterpart in the active voice:

Passive

Active
The grass was stooped by the wind. The wind stooped the grass.
The glass was filled by Jamie with orange juice. Jamie filled the glass with orange juice.
The pizza was eaten by the eager friends. The eager friends ate the pizza.

By now you should get the picture. Everything under Passive was being acted upon instead of something making it happen. See if you can tell which sentences are passive:

1. The bark came from the dog.
2. The window was repaired by dad.
3. Helen ate the popcorn.
4. The moon was round.
5. The covers were pulled by James at the sight of the monster.
6. Valerie hopped onto the boat.
7. The fortress seemed to graze the sky.
8. He left the bucket of water where it was.
9. Orange and red was the sky.
10. Passive or active voice is this sentence in?

Out of those ten, only 5 were passive. Do you know which ones? I’ll tell you at the end of this article so remember which numbers you choose.

In this sentence I shall now contradict myself in saying that in some cases the passive voice is all right to use; such as when a character has a flashback or when you the writer want to describe something that happened in the past. When writing these kinds of scenes its important that you don’t over use the words ‘was’, ‘had’ ‘could’, ‘have’ and ‘been’. There are many more. Here’s a passage to show what I mean:

He remembered the water hitting him. It had been a hot day then, and it was supposed to get hotter. He would have brought his own swimming pool wherever he went had he known that. But this pool, one his friends had, was one he could swim in with more space. It could have been the biggest pool he’d seen, but he’d seen a larger one somewhere else.

There’s a lot of ‘he’d’ , ‘ had beens’ and ‘ haves’. When you right flashbacks just remember not to overdo the past.

LIMITED DIALOGUE

Every story should have at least some dialogue and the more the better. In passive voice there is sometimes a lack for someone speaking. This is done especially when you want to describe one of your characters. What’s the main way many writers do it? Well, they introduce the character and as soon as the reader sees their names they beginning reading at least the next four paragraph detailing that character from eye color to the way their hair blows whenever the wind touches it.

Their is and old saying that ‘actions speak louder than words’, that also goes to say that ‘ someone talking speaks louder than them not saying it’.

Read the following and see if you get a sense of a dull monotone as you read:

Lucinda turned and watched as the sorceress stalked angrily before her. Her white eyes were ablaze and her wavy white hair bounced in the wind she created. She was only a foot taller than Lucinda, but she had the feeling that she much taller. The sorceress had long arms that Lucinda feared would reach out and strangle her at any moment. But it was her teeth that scared her the most. They were sharp and fanged like a coyotes.

After the first sentence, every other following it deals with the sorceress stalking in. Lucinda stands calmly aside as the writer gives us the description. It would be better if spoken words could express what we need to see. Here it is with dialogue.

Lucinda turned to see the sorceress walking in.
” Bethany, I’m glad that you came-”
” Came? It’s the middle of the night, and I was still asleep when that fool-hearted maid of yours woke me up! I would have still been-”
” Please, Bethany, I know the hour. And it is much too late to be in such a fit.”
Bethany blew the air from her lungs as she watch Lucinda pour tea from a pot into teacups. She took one when Lucinda offered it.
” What is it you want to know?” Bethany asked.
Lucinda took a drink from her cup, trying not to laugh at seeing the sorceress’s white hair sticking nearly straight up.
” Where are the books?”
” What books? You drag me in here for this?”
” The one’s with the coveted spells.”
Bethany licked her teeth, revealing in a flash the two fangs hanging at the corners of her mouth.
” I burned them all.”
” You did what!”
A hand reached out, long and slender. ” I said I burned them all Lucinda, and if ask that question again I’ll strangle yo u.”

There, much better. The reader now knows that Bethany, the sorceress, is angry in the way she talks. I didn’t even have to say it directly. She rambles at how she was asleep and how that ‘ fool-hearted maid’ woke her up. She wouldn’t talk like that unless she was angry.

I talked about every description that was in the before passage, but I failed to mention that Bethany was taller than Lucinda, but that she appeared much taller. I feared such sentence could be omitted, it wasn’t really worth knowing.

LOOK FOR WAS

A sure way to scan your sentences to tell if they are in the passive voice is to look for the word ‘was’. In the sentences above where I wrote them in passive voice, almost everyone that was in passive voice had the ‘was’ buried somewhere in it. When I rewrote them into the active I omitted the that word in all of them. Be careful though, because not every sentence with ‘ was’ is active. Changing them can make you inadvertently transpose them for passive:

She was tall. Tall was she. Or a question you didn’t intend. Was she tall?

A FEELING OF BEING IN THE PAST

This is similar as of the topic before. Words like ‘was’ and ‘were’ when you write in the passive voice can make your writing seem hindered and appear as if it is all taking place in the past. Do you intend to say that was how it used to be at one time, or is that how it is now? You must always make yourself clear, you don’t want your readers looking into a muddy pond.

THE ANSWERS

This is where I’ll give the answers to the sentences above that were in passive voice. I rewrote them in the active so you’ll see the difference between them:

1. The bark came from the dog-passive voice.
1. The dog barked-active voice
2 The window was repaired by dad-passive voice
2. Dad repaired the window-active voice
5. The covers were pulled by James at the sight of the monster-passive voice
5. James pulled the covers at the sight of the monster-active voice
9. Orange and red was the sky-passive voice
10 The sky was orange and red-active voice

So, how did you do? For each one you got wrong go back and see why you missed it.

You can email the author of this article at antavius_1376@hotmail.com

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Antavius S. Flagg, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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