Good fiction is active.  (I tell myself this as I slog through a first draft that feels about as active as mud.  Mud can be active, right?  Certainly anyone who has lived downhill from a mudslide would say so.)

But yes, good fiction is active.  This is why writers are told to avoid the passive voice, although like all rules, there are times when they may be bent, just a bit.

One problem may be that a writer has to know what the passive voice is before he can start avoiding it.  And to do that, he has to know the difference between object and subject in a sentence.

Say you wanted to tell someone that you were sitting in your house and the telephone rang and it was your mother:

Mom called me. Here, “Mom” is the subject, “me” is the object: the subject acts, which means the sentence is in the active voice.

I was called by Mom.   Here, the actual subject—I—is receiving the action, not performing it: this is the passive voice.

Mom was calling every week is not an example of the passive voice, although depending on the context, its flabby effect may be tightened by the simpler Mom called every week.

Putting the emphasis on the sentence object is both grammatically passive and emotionally disengaged.  Passivity rarely improves a piece of writing.  There are the odd cases where the passive structure is simpler: I was paid in dollars is generally better than the vague third person They paid me in dollars.  And used with care, the passive can provide contrast: While Jerry was being investigated, he secretly jumped into action may be better (again, depending on context) than While they were investigating him, Jerry secretly jumped into action, although it is probably not better than something more specific such as, While the FCC were investigating him, Jerry secretly jumped into action.

For the most part, the passive voice should be avoided by—a writer should avoid the passive voice.  The active voice makes for active writing, concise and direct.

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  1. La Donna on May 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

    You know, you don’t really have enough to do … I think you need to find a gig teaching creative writing!! This made a whole lot more sense than the last time someone tried to explain to me the passive voice!!

  2. Antyradary on May 17, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Well you are explaining grammatical elaboratenesses.

  3. The Bold Flying Officer on May 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Champion (that’s a Yorkshire expression for ‘good’ or ‘well done’). An American that explain (the Queen’s) English grammar.

  4. The Bold Flying Officer on May 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Belay that last pipe – as British sailors used to say. Post should read “An American that CAN explain … etc”.

    My fingers can’t keep up with my brain!

  5. Greys Anatomy Episode Guide on May 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    The use of passive voice should have limitations, and yes I I agree that sometimes it cant be avoided though it also blends well with how the story is outline, and how the sentence is delivered..

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