Show vs Tell: Active vs Passive

Regardless of your chosen genre, intended audience, or personal author’s voice, you should always be trying to write clear, concise, beautiful sentences.

One way to do this is to make sure you’re writing in the active voice. There is a time and place to use the passive voice, and we’ll talk about that a little later, but for now, let's start with some definitions...

Active Voice

When a sentence is written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action.

Example (active):

Sir Galahad beheaded the dragon.

In the active voice, the focus is on the subject (the agent that is performing an action), which in this case is Sir Galahad.

Passive Voice

When a sentence is written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action.

Example (passive):

The dragon was beheaded by Sir Galahad.

In the passive voice, the focus is either on the recipient of the action or else the action itself. In this case, the focus is on the dragon.

Example (passive) 2:

The beheading of the dragon was done by Sir Galahad.

Written like this, the focus is on the beheading.

Fixing Passive Voice

As a general rule, you want your sentences to be written in the active voice. 

In trying to identify if you’re using too many passive sentences, doing a quick document search for the word ‘by’ can help. You can then usually restructure the sentences and move the subject closer to the start to make it active.

Example (passive):

It is believed by children all over the world that their Christmas presents are made by Santa’s elves.

Here, we see the passive voice used twice, once in each of the sentence’s two clauses. You’ll notice the two times ‘by’ is used. If we chop them out and move the subjects (‘children’ in the first clause and ‘Santa’s elves’ in the second) closer to the beginning of their clauses, the sentence becomes fully active.

Example (active):

Children all over the world believe that Santa’s elves make their Christmas presents.

When to use passive

The active voice tends to be stronger, more concise, and more direct. The passive voice tends to be wordier, more vague, and often harder to follow. But there are times when you don’t want the focus of a particular sentence to be the subject.

Example (active):

An arching rainbow slashed the sky in two.

Example (passive):

The sky was slashed in two by an arching rainbow.

This sentence works fine written both ways. The author can choose to emphasize the rainbow or emphasize the slashing.

The active version is shorter, it’s cleaner, it’s a concise image. The reader pictures a rainbow surrounded by blue sky. Simple, right?

The passive version is a little longer, a little more complex, and has a more action-y feel. The reader pictures a sky, then the fact that there’s also a rainbow whooshes into their mind’s eye. The sentence has motion, a sort of beautiful violence in what’s otherwise a pastoral image.

Depending on how you want the reader to feel reading the passage, you can choose either the concrete active version or the more intricate passive version.

Show v. Tell

We’ve been talking a lot about showing versus telling the past few articles, and about how authors generally want to avoid simply explaining to the reader what’s happening in the story. We want to show a story in motion, through feelings and actions and the eyes of the characters. How does using active versus passive voice come into play here? Is one more ‘showy’ and one more tell-y’?

You’d think that passive voice would usually be telling the reader what’s happening, whereas active is actually showing it happen. You’d be right, mostly. But there are times when the opposite is true.

Let’s revisit the first example...

Example (active): Sir Galahad beheaded the dragon.

Example (passive): The dragon was beheaded by Sir Galahad.

Which is showing? Which is telling? It depends. 

If you’re writing from the POV of Sir Galahad and follow up this sentence with a passage about the brave knight pulling back his visor and declaring to the townsfolk that they are safe at last, by God! then yes. You certainly would want to choose the active version. 

But if your story is about the last of the once-noble dragons remembering the slaughter of their friend, you might choose differently. This is because while the actor of that particular sentence is by definition Sir Galahad (after all, he’s the one doing the action), the subject the reader is supposed to care about and be focused on would be the dragon. In this case, you might want to choose the passive version.

So, yeah. It’s confusing. This stuff usually is. The trick is to be aware of the rules and the norms of modern prose, to recognize what you really want to accomplish in a given sentence, and to make conscious, educated choices in your writing.

Can you really get away with passive voice?

Okay, so we’ve seen how the passive voice can theoretically sound nice in certain scenarios, but what about all those teachers, professors, guidelines, and manuals that declare the passive voice to be the root of all evil in the universe? Can an author really get away with using it? From my experience, yes...sometimes.

I recently sold a 9,100-word science fiction short story to a genre magazine. The story contained 1,065 sentences. The editor at the magazine sent me their notes and had marked, among a lot else, ten clauses where I used the passive voice. In each case, they recommended I rewrite the sentences in the active voice.

I looked over the notes, took the editor seriously, and concluded that they were right...about six of the sentences. I rewrote those six sentences and was happy with the changes. I sent back the draft and marked the four passive clauses that I thought should remain, along with explanations for why I felt they worked better that way.

In the end, the editor agreed about three of them. I compromised on the fourth. The story was published with three of its 1,065 sentences written blatantly in the passive voice. Each of these sentences followed the same basic pattern and accomplished the same thing, specifically, to slow down the prose and take a moment to linger on a particular action. I was very pleased with the final result and so was my editor.

So, yeah. You can use some passive voice if you’re smart about it, stay consistent, and explain your reasoning. Just make sure you’re not accidentally scattering passive sentences haphazardly across every page, and always try the active voice first.

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November 5, 2019

Dave Kavanaugh

Dave likes to write about ancient aliens, newborn gods, and really big swords. He is the author of the serial "Age of Omicron" and lots of speculative short fiction. To learn more, head over to www.davekavanaugh.com.

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