Story Basics 101: Passive Writing vs Active Writing

Introduction

Often I read stories written by aspiring writers — the plot is great, characters are relatable, the message is powerful… but the narration is weak. Passive writing strikes again. The notion of active writing vs passive writing is a challenge when both passive and active writing are technically correct, with no grammar crime committed. Understanding the difference between passive and active may not happen overnight — it took me years to grasp and, hell, I learnt a few things by writing this blog post! I digress. To start, let’s look at basic sentence structure. 

Basic Sentence Structure

Sentences comprise three parts; 

1. The action, 

2. The subject (usually a person, but can be animals or things),

3. The object.

Examples

Anne ran down the road.

Anne is the subject.
Ran is the action.
The road is the object.

The rain had poured down on Ben.

Ben is the subject.
Poured is the action.
Rain is the object. 

Notice the different arrangement of the sentence parts between the above examples? Sentences can be constructed in one of two ways; 

Subject-action-object
or 
Object-action-subject.

Active writing follows the subject-action-object pattern.
Passive writing follows the object-action-subject pattern.

Looking at the examples above, “Anne ran down the road” is an active sentence, and “The rain had poured down on Ben” is a passive sentence. Active sentences always start with the subject. Passive sentences always start with action. 

What about sentences starting with action, you ask? Now, because the English language is a little crazy, sentences that start with an action are treated differently. In these sentences, the first word transforms from being an action (verb) to describing (adjective) the subject.

Example

Running, Amber went through the door. 

Running is describing Amber
Amber is the subject
Went through is the action
The door is the object

Running, Amber went through the door” is an active sentence. Although, transforming action into a descriptive is considered weak. Writing gurus advise using this type of sentence structure occasionally. 

The Strengths of Active Writing

Active writing holds several advantages over passive writing. The sentences are more direct, cutting through the waffle, and therefore easier to understand. The text is more engaging. Consider;

Passive: The video game had been played by Jim all day. 
vs
Active: Jim played the video game all day.

The active voice is clear and concise. Fewer words are used, and the sentence is tighter without the unnecessary helping verbs “had”, “been”, and “by”. In general, the helping verbs “was/were” and “have/had/has” are the prime offenders. 

Placing the subject before the action (and the object) puts a spotlight on the subject and allows the reader to feel closer to the subject. Readers want to connect with characters aka the subject. The tone of the narration becomes more akin to how we talk.

Active writing creates a sense of now. Passive writing creates a sense of the distant past. I’m looking at you “have been” and “had”. Note: Not to be confused with past tense.

Active writing is related to the “show” in the “show don’t tell rule” but that’s a topic for another day. 

How to Fix Passive Sentences

Changing passive sentences into passive sentences is easy. The first step is to identify the passive sentences. Look for sentences with the “object, action, subject” order. Rewrite passive sentences as active sentences, by moving the subject to the start of the sentence.

Examples

The mat was sat on by the cat
Becomes
The cat sat on the mat

The food was cooked by the volunteers.
Becomes
The volunteers cooked the food. 

To help identify passive language, watch out for the “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were) and constructs (have/has been, was being, is being, will be). The word “by” is another passive indicator. For example, “Her taxes were filed by the accountant”. The accountant did the “action” and is the subject. A better sentence is “The accountant filed her taxes”. 

With practice, active language becomes second nature. 

Tip:
Try writing in the present tense. Present tense by nature is active and the subject naturally comes first. For example, “The mat sits on the cat” is wrong and changes the sentence meaning (“The cat sits on the mat”). “The food cooks the volunteers” — well, that story just got nasty. 

Exceptions

Like any writing rule, there are exceptions. Academic and formal writing is passive by nature. Even creative writing might require the odd passive line. Maybe the emphasis needs to be on the action at play rather than on the subject. 

Example

Bob was asked to play Santa. 

The focus is on Bob being asked (the action) rather than who asked (the subject). Note, Bob is a passive participant in this statement; he didn’t do anything, the identity of the subject is unknown. 

Passive writing can help speed up the story if a line or two is used here and there. Stories can not focus on every minor detail or the reader would get bored. It doesn’t matter who asked Bob to play Santa, the identity is irrelevant to the story, and including the detail risks dragging the story down. All story elements should drive the plot forward. What the reader needs to know is he was asked.

The next line in the story might be active and the line, “Bob was asked to play Santa” acts as an introduction sentence and clarity  — “Bob was asked to play Santa. He clenched his jaw as another darling squealed into his ear.”  

The passive line speeds up the story and jumps straight into the scene rather than explaining how Bob was roped into playing Santa. That story detail can be explored later if need be. Or maybe Bob being asked to play Santa has already been written earlier in the story and “Bob was asked to play Santa” is a quick reminder for the reader.

When to use passive writing in a story will be focused on in a future post featuring “Show Don’t Tell”. The two concepts are related.

Remember, if you’re drafting, anything goes. Passive sentences can be reworked while editing. Ah, the magic of editing.   

Conclusion

A hundred years ago, I caught on to active writing by accident. Too many “was” made my writing boring. “Was” became my naughty word and I avoid it like Covid — with dialogue as an exception. Consequently, the other passive words stopped appearing with no conscious effort on my part. And yes, not relying on “was” in my prose proved to be freaking hard. The word can’t be avoided completely. My writing is by far tighter now and brain rewiring takes time. 

If you’re a beginner to active writing and your head is exploding, ignore the details in this post and just cull “was” from your writing. If you’re daring, add “had” to the list. Dialogue is an exception because it’s how we talk and characters should sound like us (unless there is a reason not to). 

Exercises 

Put one of your stories through the passive test; identify passive sentences and turn them into active sentences. 

Try writing your next story in the present tense.



Categories: Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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  1. Story Basics 101: Show Don’t Tell – THE WRITING ASYLUM

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