Confession: I love dragons.
I have, for a long time. One of my favorite movies growing up was Pete’s Dragon, as a kid I adored Bruce Coville, then I moved on to Anne McCaffrey. I have an entire collection of eastern and western dragons people have given me over the years (I added to this collection on my vacation), I have written multiple novels about dragons and their riders, both good and evil.
So, by all rights, I should adore Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series. It’s Star Wars! With dragons!
Yeah, not so much. Truth is, I can’t get through the friggin’ first chapter. The voice is just SO passive.
Recently, I came across an article on the passive voice, which got me thinking I should be a big old copycat and talk about this phenomenon myself. If you’re starting to get the feeling I don’t come up with anything original on my own, you’d be right. So what is the passive voice?
One of the two “voices” of verbs ( see also active voice). A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb, and was thrown is in the passive voice. The same sentence cast in the active voice would be, “The pitcher threw the ball.”Then dictionary.com writes my entire article for me by adding this:
Note : It is usually preferable to use the active voice wherever possible, because it gives a sense of immediacy to the sentence.Really, I should let that sentence do all of my work for me and instead go write Fates or RAJ or Greater, but unfortunately for you non-writers out there, I’m going to go into detail on this subject.
A sense of immediacy is a great way to put it, honestly. The art of storytelling is to pull the readers into whatever story you’re telling them, it’s just as simple and as complicated as that. Part of that is the great battle of story vs. craft. You can have a perfectly told story, but if it’s not a good story, it’s crap. And you can tell a perfectly good story badly, and it’s crap. Learning to use the active voice falls under craft. Craft is the art of taking the vision inside your head, bridging the gap to the page, and putting it inside the reader’s heads without that gap being noticeable at all.
Active voice is one of those things that allows you to do that. It has multiple benefits, like giving your characters a sense of action (“He was running” vs. “He ran”), a sense of purpose, and using fewer words more powerfully. Sure, the passive voice can pad your word count like nothing else, but life is not a Nanowrimo novel. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking longer chapters are just better automatically (I know, I know, this is ironic coming from the 10k Chapter Queen herself). Still doubt me? Go read Hemingway (and no, not Shakespeare Hemingway). I’ll wait.
Now, for the second part of this, I’m going to throw you for a loop. Ready? Here’s a paragraph from Fates:
She looked far more relaxed than he'd seen her in a long time, even in the Jeep driving toward Phoenix. Her coat was unzipped over the shirt she'd worn around the CIA and NSA headquarters earlier, though she had changed into jeans and a pair of fuzzy boots to ward off of the cold. There was a light blue scarf around her neck, not tied. In that moment, she didn't look a thing like Superspy Agent Walker, just a woman in her mid-twenties enjoying a beer with friends.Wait a second, Frea, wait just a darn second. There’s passive voice in that paragraph! What the frak?
Yeah, I didn’t say that you militantly have to use the active voice all the time. Frankly, doing the same thing throughout your entire story? That's called monotony, and it's about as fun to read as the manual for the washing machine. I'm going to attempt to get deeper into the art of discovering and using your voice (not the thing you sing with!) later on in this series, but for now, you just need to know that it is okay to use the passive voice...sparingly. Some writers will tell you that NO, you should NEVER, ever, ever use the passive voice. I subscribe to the rule of everything in moderation.
Unfortunately for mxpw, I moderate the amount of SWP quite severely.
Take that paragraph above, for instance. "Her coat was unzipped over the shirt she'd worn around the CIA and NSA headquarters earlier." There's ways to make that active voice ("Her coat lay open" would be one), but I thought the word "unzipped" fit the mood I wanted better, so I chose to use the passive voice. It's all a balancing act, and really paying attention, getting good feedback, and noticing the verbs you use will help you with that balance. It won't be a magical overnight change. You'll find yourself falling into bad habits, more likely than not.
But hey, that's what the second draft is for.