1. Cruis.In
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    Cruis.In New Member

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    Passive vs active voice

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Cruis.In, Sep 14, 2015.

    Hi everyone, I started research for a fiction novel some months ago. Scifi to be specific. I wanted to ask some specific things about active vs passive voice which haven't been covered in some topics I searched through here already on the subject.

    I am aware of all the stated pros of the active voice. The cons of the passive voice. I had 16 pages of a particular chapter I was writing, an important chapter which introduces my 'hero' and his guile. When I did a word search for 'was' I found 55 instances of it in the 16 pages. I was like oh no! They say avoid passive voice. And that most new writiers fall into the trap of writing in the passive voice.

    So I went through it and eventually replaced the passiveness with good verbs etc making it almost entirely active. I took out all the 'were' too.

    Then I went and looked through a couple 'best sellers' varied too. I looked at James Patterson, William Shatner, and some others, and I noticed they used 'was' quite a lot, where there was a lot of narration. Probably not as much as 55 on 16 pages like me. But still quite a bit and I found I could re-word their sentences to be active.

    So getting to the point shortly, I didn't find their style or prose 'weak' or uninteresting or bland. Is it that most readers won't even notice passive voice once the story, the style/prose of the 'action' is good?

    Strong characters, great dialogue between them, and great story, with mystery, suspense, tension etc forms part of an ideal novel right? Can passive voice use actually make it bad? I'm thinking no. I am leaning more towards, if your book is overall weak, passive voice makes it worse, but if it's overall (all factors considered) a very engaging book, that passive voice use makes no difference to the reader. Hell I wasn't even aware of passive/active voice until I started taking instruction on writing.

    What do you think on the subject?
    Do we place too much emphasis on something a reader won't notice in a good book? But which he will in a bad book?

    Should I or others go for all active?
    Is passive necessary or just easier in narrative passages?
    Is it really not that bad anyway when you are conveying nothing urgent in a scene?

    Could I go wrong by trying to be active 90% in my prose?

    It's got me feeling like I should immediately edit out all passive, when I am editing drafts of my chapters. Obsessive almost. Everytime I write 'was' now. I stop and re think the whole sentence.

    Given what I've told you about modern novelists from James P. to Shatner, what's the real deal in it?

    I should probably ask, if I don't have someone or SOMETHING doing something to something else, then I am free to use 'to be' as that doesn't have anything to do with being passive correct?

    Maybe I am getting confused when I see the use of 'was' in those author's books I mentioned that its passive, when in fact, it isn't. An instructor just said to me, go through the chapter and remove all mentions of 'was' and 'were' your prose will be better for it.

    So have I infact removed 'was' and 'were' from sentences that were not even passive to begin with?

    Evaluate these for passive. Are they passive?

    "It was great to be home"
    "There is no place like home"

    Of the below examples which sentence might you say illustrates the sorrow of the person better? Is the first one passive?

    "He bit his lip. It was all he could do not to cry."
    "He bit his lip. The pain helped to hold back his tears"
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2015
  2. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    My first thought is that 'was/were' does not necessarily reflect passive voice. More often than not, sentences I read with those words are not in passive voice. But I'm not sure what you're writing/reading.

    Can you provide some specific examples of what you consider passive voice, both from your own writing and from the modern novelists you mention?
     
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  3. Cruis.In
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    Cruis.In New Member

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    Example from author

    "He loved the warm secure feeling he got from knowing that he was on Admiral Thorn's good side."

    name of character edited.

    Example from me

    A single, tiny starship against a vast universe.
    "It was this sentiment that compelled starship commanders to confront the dangers of the unknown, and revel in the excitement of discovery."

    I can't find anymore, since I edited out the 'was'.
    According to another user on this board, I went on a 'was' witch hunt. Clearly mistaking that use of 'was' or other forms of to be does not necessarily imply you are using passive.

    Now I wonder if I ruined my pacing and feeling I was trying to convey the way I had things before. :(
    But at least I understand better now. Not all 'was' is passive.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    You have been led astray. (BTW, that sentence is passive voice. And I'm not changing it. Because passive voice isn't always bad.)

    Passive voice really isn't a very natural way of forming sentences. Writers, new or old, rarely use passive voice. Not all passive voice uses "was", and not all uses of "was" signify passive voice. In fact, very few of them do. I believe that none of your examples in this thread are passive voice. I would bet that almost none of the sentences that you corrected in your work were passive voice.

    The best thing that you could do about passive voice is to truly understand it.

    The second best thing that you could do about it is forget that you ever heard the term and focus on some other, more important, way of improving your writing.
     
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  5. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    Yes, you may have been premature in deleting all your wases and weres.

    In my understanding, passive voice refers to how sentences are structured around verbs.

    In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the agent of the verb (i.e. the one performing the action), while the object of the sentence is the patient of the verb (i.e. the one upon which the action is performed).

    In passive voice, the roles are reversed: the patient becomes the subject and the agent becomes the object.

    The examples you provided are far more complex, but I think you'll find they're in active voice after all.

    I agree with @ChickenFreak though - don't get bogged down in the details. Just write organically, then read back over it. If something sounds awkward, that's when you start questioning why.

    Edit: fixed typos & altered first example to include 'was' in active voice
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2015
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  6. Cruis.In
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    Cruis.In New Member

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    Thanks so much guys. Helps alot :)

    At least I didn't finish an entire book before I really got it :)
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. What @ChickenFreak and @Sifunkle said.

    As a writer, I'd advise NEVER to look for these kinds of shortcuts to good writing. I'll just remove all instances of 'was' and 'were.' I'll remove all adjectives. I'll remove all words ending in -ly. I'll never use passive voice. I'll never replace 'said' with any other word. Etc. All of these 'shortcuts' will actually shortchange your writing. These words, voices, tenses and usages have their place. Just make sure you understand the effect each one has, and don't be afraid to use them to create the effect you want.

    There isn't any 'easy' way to achieve good writing skills or results. It takes time, effort, knowledge, experimentation, willingness to change, and an awareness of what good writing actually is like (which means voracious reading.) It's not a matter of ticking boxes.
     
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  8. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Passive voice may be indicated through words like was and were, but it may equally not be.

    In essence passive voice is where the agency is removed from the action. The most classic example is the three word sentence politicians occasionally come out with - "Mistakes were made". Note that this completely removes the question of who made the mistake from the admission. It is therefore passive.

    Active by contrast would be "Joe made mistakes". Note that the agency - the person performing the action - is connected to the action.

    Now as to the rest of your question, a novel should never be all active or all passive. The mistake mentioned is actually that new writers don't manage to use active and passive voice where they are most suitable.

    And as an aside you should never listen to rules of writing - there aren't any. Instead go back to your work and go through it asking at each point - is this what I want to say? Does this paint my picture?

    Passive voice is very useful in painting certain emotions - helplessness for example. Also confusion and not being in the driver's seat in the middle of the action. So for example: "A scream was torn from Thor's throat as the red hot poker found his skin" is passive and paints the picture of Thor as victim. Whereas "Thor screamed when the red hot poker found his skin" paints Thor as victim yes, but still an agent in the action. If Thor is actually ruined and you want to paint the picture of him as broken etc, the passive voice works better. If on the other hand he's still in the fight and about to strike back etc, the active voice may better convey what you want.

    Active voice is much more use in painting pictures of direct confrontation where the MC is actively doing something. So for example "Thor drove his sword through his enemy's torso." Very active voice. It concisely explains and expresses the view that Thor did the action. Whereas the passive equivalent "Thor's sword was driven through his enemy's torso" does not.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  9. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I must confess I didn't understand what was meant by active/passive voice, but the examples here tell me that I don't think I ever use a passive voice: http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html

    Why would anyone choose to say, "It is believed by the candidate that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by Congress."

    Instead of, "The candidate believes that Congress must place a ceiling on the budget." ?

    The former just sounds clumsy and wrong.
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Was is a perfectly good word but I feel it's usually to denote a fact or a stationary thing. The cup was on the table. Fact - placement. I was angry - fact - state of being. It's not really passive per say. I think that's a misconception. I think passive is when you're inverting the subject and object. But don't quote me, grammar is still an ongoing thing with me and I have a hard time keeping terms straight.
    I actually find was gets into most trouble in wrong pairings -
    I was running.
    instead of
    I ran.
    I was running sounds like an action requiring an interruption or corresponding action - I was running to the store when I met Daphne.
    It's the author trying to keep the was active but it kind of blunders.
    Best ways to use was - in exposition, description, stating facts. Not hinting, not showing but flat out, need-to telling. And with anything in writing - a mix is needed more then must nots.
     
  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Passive voice is simply when there is no grammatical subject in the sentence. There is no agent for the action. There may be a logical subject, but that's different to a grammatical subject.

    The door was closed.

    That's passive voice. There is no mentioned actor for the verb close; thus, there is no grammatical subject. There is a logical subject, the door, but it's being modified by the verb; thus, it cannot be the grammatical subject.

    The door was closed by Billy.

    Tricky, tricky. We know who the actor is here. It's Billy! Billy did it! But this is still passive voice because Billy is hiding behind the prepositional curtain provided by the word by; thus, we still have no grammatical subject because Billy belongs to a prepositional clause and is subordinated and that counts him out as a grammatical subject. The door is modified as the patient of the verb, so it's out as well. That leaves us two verbs and an article, and in this case neither verb is being treated as a thing, so they're out and the same goes for the article. No grammatical subject.
     
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  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to quibble slightly. "The door was closed." is ambiguous. If "closed" is a verb, it's passive voice. If it's an adjective, making the sentence simIlar in form to "The door was green." it's not passive voice.

    The Billy sentence is unambiguously passive voice, yep.
     
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  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    It's actually a past participle. Verb serving as adjective. And while it may be moonlighting as a descriptor of quality, it's still structurally a verb, thus the whole structure is passive voice.
     
  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    It's actually a past participle. Verb serving as adjective. And while it may be moonlighting as a descriptor of quality, it's still structurally a verb, thus the whole structure is passive voice.
     

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