Lyn Gala

One writer's journal through one version of reality


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Kill that Passive Voice

I should be writing my novel, but I either have the stomach flu or Wendy’s did not keep their meat at temperature… who knows? Anyway, I’m surfing Facebook—the time killer and bane of all writers and I came across one more post admonishing writers to avoid passive voice.

Most of these posts include a nice little description of passive voice. It’s when the thing getting acted on is placed up front and the person doing the action is shoved into the back of the sentence or removed altogether. You can spot them because a passive voice sentence picks up a helping verb.

Active voice:

Lyn threw the ball

Passive voice shoving the subject in back:

The ball was thrown by Lyn

Passive voice with subject missing:

The ball was thrown.

 

And here is where most of these posts stop. The author must find and fix passive voice on their own. That’s a little like pointing to a field and saying… “Hey, there’s a bomb somewhere. Go disarm it.” They don’t even explain WHY it’s considered poor writing in English. So, here is some of what I’ve picked up over the years.

 

Passive voice lets writers hide a guilty party.

The money was stolen. The inspection was botched. The suspect was incorrectly arrested.

Yeah… do you see how the guilty people are suddenly ducking out of the blame? In romance writing that’s a particularly serious error because the reader can’t tell who is doing what.

Susan was betrayed.

Um… by whom? The asshole who cheated on her, the girlfriend who was the second person in the bed, or both? Passive voice hides Susan’s true feelings of betrayal.

 

So, how do you fix passive voice? First, you have to find it. Here’s a short passage.

Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved toward Tom with that sway in her hips that meant she was in a mood to play and Tom was considered her favorite playtoy. Tom never had much luck with women, so he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out with Da’shay. However, the chase was included in their game, so he planned a good long run, and he’d keep running until he was caught fair and square. Then she could tie him down and use him as she liked, and she would.

 

You want to suspect any linking verbs.

1. “Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved”

2. “she was in a mood to play”

3. “Tom was considered her favorite playtoy”

4. “he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out”

5. “the chase was included in their game”

6. “he was caught fair and square”

 

Passive voice is a structure where the person doing the action is either moved to the back or removed. Check each sentence by looking for the action (verb) and deciding if the person doing that action is up front where he or she should be.

 

1. The verb is “watched.” Who is doing that? Either Tom is watching her OR there is someone else watching the couple start their gameplay. This is the worst type of passive voice because it makes the actions unclear. If Tom is going the action, “Tom” should be placed at the front of the sentence so the reader knows who is doing the action.

2. The only verb is “was.” The sentence is about Da’shay, and the “she” is up front. This sentence is fine.

3. The verb is “considered.” Who is considering it? Does Tom consider himself a playtoy or does Da’shay think of him as a playtoy? This is written from Tom’s point of view, so this should reflect Tom’s thoughts, but this sentence is so unclear that it almost reads as if we’ve jumped to Da’shay’s point of view.

4. The verb is “was.” The fact that you don’t have another verb in there means this isn’t passive voice.

5. The verb is “included.” Who is including it? “Chase” is the thing that is included, so it can’t be the subject doing the action, but it’s up front. That’s passive voice.

6. The verb is “caught.” Who is doing the catching and who is getting caught? The person doing the action should be up front and the person getting caught should be in back. Wait. The sentence is backward. Tom is getting caught, but his name is up front.

 

So this short passage has four pieces of passive voice. Fixing them isn’t difficult. In each case, you do the same thing. You have to figure out who is doing the action. Then take that person and put their name (or a pronoun that refers to them) up front.

 

1. “Da’shay was carefully watched as she moved”

Who is doing the watching? I don’t want someone else in this scene so it must be Tom. I need to put him up front. I then drop the helping verb out of the sentence: “Tom carefully watched Da’shay as she moved”

 

3. “Tom was considered her favorite playtoy”

This is Tom’s point of view, but the fact is that thinking about yourself as a playtoy is a little creepy. I want Da’shay to look at Tom like he’s a playtoy, so he’s just thinking about her attitude and reveling in how much she likes to “use” him. So I’m going to put Da’shay up front as the person doing the “considering.” That will push “Tom” into the back half of the sentence. “Da’shay considered Tom her favorite playtoy.

 

5. “the chase was included in their game”

This is confusing. Who included chasing as part of their sexual game. I seriously hope it was both of them agreeing on it. But as it’s written, it’s really not clear who set up this dynamic. This is where passive voice makes things truly confusing. Put that both of them include this up front so it’s clear this is a shared kink: “They included the chase as part of their game.”

 

6. “he was caught fair and square”

Clearly Da’shay is doing the catching, so leaving her out of the sentence is just lazy. If she’d doing the action, put her up front. “Da’shay caught him fair and square.

 

 

So, put it all together and write the passage in a more active (rather than passive) voice:

Tom carefully watched Da’shay as she moved toward him with that sway in her hips that meant she was in a mood to play and Da’shay considered Tom her favorite playtoy. Tom never had much luck with women, so he wasn’t sure how he had lucked out with Da’shay. However, they included the chase as part of their game, so he planned a good long run, and he’d keep running until Da’shay caught him fair and square. Then she could tie him down and use him as she liked, and she would.

 

 

So that’s how you kill passive voice (after recognizing it).

 

Look, I honestly don’t know who reads this blog. Is this useful? A waste of time? Should I be off writing my pirate novel?

 

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