Sunday 19 June 2011

Passive Resistance

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.


Paula Martin said...

Excellent post, mood. Agree with all the points you've made. As you say, 'don't write passively' is a general piece of advice which dosn't apply to every situation.

Unknown said...

Another wonderful write up, Mood. Excellent, excellent explanation. I'm really digging your writing tips as they're some of the most straightforward and non-pretentious out there.


Christa Desir said...

Yes, this can also happen deep deep into revisions. Get the bones of your story in there. Make sure your scenes are relevant and move the story along. Fixing things like passive language seems to me more of a polishing thing unless you have trouble with all passive language all the time (which I have seen).
And you are absolutely right, saying "no passive language" ever is ridiculous.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent points! I do have some passive phrases in my book. Just tried to limit how many!

Jake Henegan said...

It's a very good point you make. The whole passive sentences thing seems a lot like the no adverbs thing. Neither should be applied in every situation.

I would say, in general, active language delivers the message more clearly, as does strong verbs, but there are hundreds of exceptions (as you mentioned here) that a lot of people ignore in favour of following a rule.

Anyway, interesting post.

Beverly Diehl said...

Great points, with excellent examples! Like sentence fragments, deliberate passive wording can be very effective. Or annoying to the point where the reader puts the book down and walks away.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, and the retweets on twitter. I try to approach this stuff from a slightly different angle from the norm. You can find a full index of all my posts on writing here

Miss Good on Paper said...

Love this post! I rarely teach "passive and active writing" to my students for this very reason.

In case I haven't said so before, I love your blog and your tips. I just wrote about avoiding cliches even though there are exceptions to that "rule" also (the subject for a future post, I suppose). Thanks!

-Miss GOP

Botanist said...

Excellent advice, Mood. I'm happy to see another advocate of thinking before blindly applying rules.

And I hate, hate, HATE it when critiquers scream "passive" at sentence structures that simply aren't.

Anna said...

Love this post.

Halli Gomez said...

Thanks for these tips. I do struggle with passive phrases at times. Have to catch them on re-writes.

Suze said...

'Like all generalised statements, the idea that passive writing is bad writing is simplistic and wrong.'

I've a marked aversion to generalizations.

McKenzie McCann said...

I use passive voice when I'm trying to build suspense or add a touch of mystery. If you only use active voice, I find the writing becomes aggressive and sometimes weighed down with facts. It's hard to follow a story when every sentence is absolutely packed.

Ellie Garratt said...

This is a brilliant post, because it shows rules can and sometimes should be broken.

Ellie Garratt

Misha Gerrick said...

Excellent post!

Don't write in passive voice is one of those rules that are actually guidelines.

One of those that should say: "Don't write in passive voice WITHOUT REASON."

If there's a reason to the choice, like a feeling to convey or a point to be made, or an emphasis to be placed, passive voice can be exactly what is needed.

But writing ONLY in passive voice is a problem.


Hektor Karl said...

Many good points. And I'll second Suze's praise for this line:

"Like all generalised statements, the idea that passive writing is bad writing is simplistic and wrong."

We should spend more time deconstructing these rules and less time simply repeating them as shorthand.

Alleged Author said...

Excellent post! Sometimes passive writing fits a scene perfectly.

Golden Eagle said...

Great points. Passive voice can work well, used in the right place and in the right way.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Nice article, Moody. I agree that there is a place for passive writing, especially if you're dealing with a difficult situation. As a moderator on an online forum, I've found that when communicating with a rule breaking member, that's it's less accusatory to use the passive voice.

nutschell said...

good post. There is definitely a time and place for passive writing and you definitely cover the most important points! Mostly though, as children's book writers (MG and YA), we are encouraged to use the active voice as it gives our readers a sense that things are moving faster than they really are. :)


mooderino said...

Miss GOP - thanks. Good luck teaching the kids, they are our future. Our horrible, frightening Hunger Games future.

@Botanist - I like it: Mooderino~An advocate of thinking.

@Anna - thanks

@Halli - struggle is whereI'm at for sure. Getting there though.

@Suze - me too, generally.

@McKenzie - I agree.

mooderino said...

@Ellie - Brilliant might be overstating it (or it might not, who am I to say?)

@Misha - I don't think you should write anything without a reason, it just happens to be easier to not think about it. and by and large teh easier route is the one that leads to less good writing.

@Hektor - it's pretty much all I spend my time on.

@Alleged - Yes.

@Golden - agreed.

@Donna - yes, as long as they don't know that's what you're doing. The internets is like the passive aggressive thunderdome.

@Nutscell - kids writing is more simplistic in general but I think they can process more complicated stuff too, once they hit 8 or 9. I always searched out stuff for adults when I was a kid, what it was saying became more important than how it was saying it.

VR Barkowski said...

Fabulous post! None of these so called rules apply in every situation. While it's important we know the rules, being brave enough to break them is the only way for a writer to develop voice and style.

Hektor Karl said...

"@Hektor - it's pretty much all I spend my time on."

A noble fight, for sure. :)

Suze said...

Can you be more specific?

Stina said...

Brilliant points. I'll be linking it to one of my posts this summer (since cool links is on vacation until September).

Thanks for the reminder that not all passive is evil. ;)

Elizabeth Twist said...

Yes! I love that you've made some important distinctions between passive voice and passive-sounding language. Thanks for this.

Greg Saltiel said...

Great post Mood! Sometimes, I miss the luxury of writing in passive for the very reasons you outlined. With screenplays, writing passively is a HUGE no-no, perhaps more than other writing mediums. I understand why -- using the active voice helps you visualize what's going on more and you can't really delve into the minds of your characters without using external cues. But sometimes the passive voice really makes for a better sentence, as you said. I like how you illustrated how the passive voice can lead to a better reveal, something I normally haven't considered.

mooderino said...

@VR-I'm a big believer in knowing why the rules as well as what the rules.

@Hektor-Ah, but war, what is it good for?


@Stina-No more cool links? But how will I know what's going on?

@Elizabeth-Glad to be of service.

@Greg-It's all about being flexible and finding what works for the particular scene in question.

Many thanks for all these comments!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I'm so glad to read a post where you state so clearly what I believe. Especially the part about applying the 'rules' to each sentence. I've worked with editors who have tried to do that.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Great post. I'm not crazy about "rules" - if it works, it works. You did an excellent job explaining the difference between active and passive.

Amanda Milner said...

Great post! I used to go through my WIPs and try to fix all the passive voice sentences in it. It was shoved down my throat to eliminate passive voice but sometimes active just didn't work. It didn't send the message I wanted, it didn't flow with the paragraph... It's much more freeing to take a more relaxed approach. You can always address it later in edits.

Michael Di Gesu said...

First I want to tell you I have an award for you at my blog Mood.

Another FANTASTIC post. Active and passive voice is so hard to balance. My first novel had tons of passive voice. IT took me eighteen months to correct it. But at time we need to be passive. Too much "active" can send your ms into orbit if there isn't a bit of balance.

Arlee Bird said...

I not a fan of generalized rules. Here you have clarified the issue of passivity very nicely. I think a nice balance of passive and active works well. Feel free to correct my writing if you ever see anything that is particularly awkward and can be said in a better way.

Tossing It Out

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