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  1. Strange Visitor
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    Strange Visitor New Member

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    Passive/Active Voice According to Famous Authors

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Strange Visitor, May 11, 2009.

    Hi all...I already read a few of the other threads about passive/active voice, but I'm still confused about how hard and fast the rule is. I know Stephen King insisted in "On Writing" that you should always use active voice, but most of his work is in passive. My favorite author, Neil Gaiman, seems to just switch as it suits him. Maybe I just don't fully understand the concept.

    I get the difference between:
    John kicked the ball.
    The ball was kicked by John.

    But sometimes it gets murky, like these sentences from "American Gods":

    "She reached into the pocket of her blouse, and pulled out the gold coin he had thrown into the grave earlier that day. There was still black dirt on it."

    "If he walked, he discovered, he did not have to think, and that was just the way he liked it; when he thought, his mind went to places he could not control, places that made him feel uncomfortable. Exhaustion was the best thing."

    The first sentences start in active voice, then end in passive. Is it okay to use "was" if it's a direct descriptive like that? Compared to, say, "Black dirt was still sitting on it."?

    In the second sentences, is there even a way to actively phrase "Exhaustion was the best thing."?

    I don't want to obsess over this, I just notice a lot in my own writing that I have to stretch and wrangle sentences oddly sometimes to make them fit an active voice. Just how important is active voice to your chances of getting published?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Passive voice has a definite place in writing. But the writer must understand the effect it has on the pace, and use it judiciously.

    Focus on the main action of the paragraph. Shadow's action of taking the coin out of his pocket and reacting to it is what is important. The actions of the coin and the dirt don't matter. What matters is the thoughts that pop into his head as he looks at the coin given to him by his dead wife.

    Sometimes, making one sentence active detracts from the main action of the paragraph by pulling attention away.

    Look at the main actor and main action of the paragraph. Make the actor the subject of the active sentence that defines that action, usually the first sentence of the paragraph, Whether the rest oif the sentences should be activeor passive depends on how they relate to the main action.

    Rules can sometimes help you decide, but mostly to help you develop a gut instinct for which is better in a particular instance.
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Agreed with Cog. Remember that the passive voice is a perfectly legit choice for syntax. It is not bad grammar, or wrong as many people are bashed into believing. It just shouldn't be the prevailing choice for syntax because it leaves a loose, unconnected feeling as to what is going in for the reader. It doesn't tie the reader into the action of the story. Unfortunately, because the passive voice can sometimes come across as artsy in sound, young/new writers find themselves slathering it everywhere in the attempt to come across as sophisticated. In the end it just sounds embarrassingly pretentious.

    As Dave has already mentioned, it has its place. Sometimes this feeling of disconnection is precisely what one intends to portray. Sometimes it can be used to give detail without taking the impact from the one action which the writer wishes to highlight.

    Just be careful no to wax rhapsodic in the passive or the reader will find themselves thinking, "Next!"

    P.S. Just as a side note. The passive no-no is less imperative in the examples you gave as these passive structures are used only to describe a condition, and not so much to remove the subject from an action as in:

    The door was closed.

    The gift was given.

    In both of these examples, verbs which are transitive have had their grammatical subjects removed from them. We have no idea who closed the door; we have no idea who gave the gift. The simple copula verb is/was is not a transitive verb. It is used to describe state of being or possession of a quality (unless it is being used as an auxiliary verb, at which point it is a tense indicator). This kind of verb is not so offended at not having a subject and direct object as a verb which is transitive.
     
  4. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    The "passive voice" or "active voice" concept usually pertains to individual sentences. However, I am a proponent that active or passive "voice" can also be a characterization of an entire paragraph, usually determined by the opening sentence.

    For example, you quoted, ""She reached into the pocket of her blouse, and pulled out the gold coin he had thrown into the grave earlier that day. There was still black dirt on it."

    This paragraph begins in strong active "voice". Impact on the reader derives from the opening sentence and carries over the subsequent sentence which simply adds imagery. But the second sentence, despite its passive structure, does not detract from the action of the overall paragraph . . . action created by the "active" opening sentence.

    Hence, I view active and passive sentence structure in relationship to its location and influence on the paragraph. In the example you quoted, the short, descriptive sentence in passive voice actually enhances the action portrayed in the active sentence by deepening the imagery.
     
  5. Strange Visitor
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    Strange Visitor New Member

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    Thanks all! Sorry it took me so long to respond, busy week. :)

    I understand a lot better now. It just drove me nuts sometimes trying never to use passive voice in any of my writing...the mental gymnastics required to rework some sentences over and over until they weren't passive, ugh!

    So now I'll relax a bit and see where my occasional, emphasizing was's take me. :)
     

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