Don’t write passively, that’s what they tell you. It isn’t as immediate, it lacks energy, it is weak writing. This is all true. For certain contexts. And untrue for others.
Like all generalised statements, the idea that passive writing is bad writing is simplistic and wrong. The important thing is to decide what effect you want your writing to have at various points in your story. To be able to do this you must know the options and the possible effects (and side-effects) and choose the right one for your story. This is hard and requires learning many things. Or you can rigorously apply the same technique to every sentence. This is easy and requires you to learn very little.
The first thing to bear in mind is something no one ever mentions when discussing this subject, that there are two entirely different types of passive writing.
1. There is the simple grammar of not making the subject of a verb the subject of a sentence.
Jack hit Dave.
This is active. Here Jack is the subject. He commits the verb, he is the one doing the hitting. Dave is the recipient, he’s is the one on the receiving end.
Dave got hit. Dave was hit. Dave is being hit. Dave has been hit.
These are all passive. There is nothing wrong with this form if it is saying what you want it to say. What it might be saying is that you don’t want the reader to know who is hitting Dave. Maybe Dave doesn’t know. Maybe that’s the point of the story. Maybe it will be revealed later. Maybe it isn’t important. Maybe Dave is the person you want the reader to concentrate on. Maybe his being hit is more important than who is doing the hitting.
You have to decide what it is you want to say. You have to know what the different constructs will imply to a reader.
The weight of words can change depending on where they appear in a sentence.
Mrs Jones was killed by a lethal injection administered by her own physician, Dr Brown.
The build up to a reveal works best if the murderer is revealed at the end of a speech, not at the beginning where it would be in the active form. The impact of words at the end of a sentence is often greater and can be used to your advantage.
Sometimes the story idea itself can affect how you place information.
If I say:
JFK was shot in Dallas in 1963 - passive
Or if I say:
Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK in Dallas in 1963 - active
Then the tone of what I’m saying changes. The context of the information, the fact some people question who shot JFK affects how the sentence is interpreted, not just the grammar. If I’m writing about who really killed JFK, passive writing can help me sustain suspense.
Sometimes the victim of action is more important than the perpetrator. Sometimes not. Knowing the difference is more important than just knowing the grammar.
It should also be noted that sometimes things that look passive aren’t.
James was walking down the road is fine. You could say James walked down the road, but only if that’s what’s happening. James was walking down the road when he saw Moira can’t be any more active than it already is without changing its meaning.
Continuous action or pre-existing condition (the window was open) are not passive, even though they are structured like it.
2. The other form of passive writing is when the character isn’t doing anything. They are just being. Existing. Observing. Thinking. There’s no activity, no movement.
Often this can be a moment of experiencing emotion or thought.
Jack was happy. Mike felt scared. Jane decided to go home.
It’s clear what you mean, but it’s open to interpretation exactly what the person is going through. What does happy mean? In what context? Which end of the happy spectrum? Content? Ecstatic?
The usual way round this is to unpack the sentiment. Why was Jack happy and how can you demonstrate it? What it comes down to is showing experience rather than telling the emotion.
But what’s more important is why you’re telling me he’s happy. If it’s important it might be worth taking some time. If it isn’t that important, why are you mentioning it? And sometimes the short, direct method can be the best method.
Mary hit Jack with the rod. She struck him on the back and on the arms. Again and again until he fell to the floor exhausted and bruised. Jack was happy.
It might not be obvious Jack was into S&M unless I pointed it out. You have to know when to use it, and how to use it. And you need a reason to use it. But then you need a reason for everything. The more general and vague and approximate you are in your writing, the less interested the reader will be.
Sometimes characters are just not very big on participation. The narrators of Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are characters in the story but aren’t the main focus. But by having them there it can add authenticity, a slightly distanced view of events, or an unreliable narrator — each approach creating a different effect. Or in a story like It Had to be Murder (filmed as Hitchcock’s Rear Window) the whole point is the characters inability to do anything other than watch, and the suspense generated. He uses the fact the narrator is laid up with a broken leg as a story device. It isn't just background information or a character trait, it is part of the story. An essential part.
In these situations it isn’t the active nature of the character that’s important, it’s the active nature of the story. How interesting is what’s happening? What’s going on? An active, verb-driving character who’s involved in a dreary tale of an obvious and predictable nature is not going to come alive because the subject is in front of an active verb. What the story is about is always the first thing to sort out.
First you need to make the story interesting in its premise. Then you have to decide where the focus is. You have be aware of the separate elements and identify their importance to the story and to each other. Then you can decide how to use passive and active writing. There’s a lot of room for manoeuvre. But certainly if you make it all passive, or if you make it all active, it will probably read flat and simplistic.