If your fiction prose-stories don’t attract readers, one culprit may be nonjudicious use of the passive voice related to style and craft proficiency. To moderate style, a writer needs to know passive construction and understand both the effective and often-detrimental uses of passive. Here’s a concise, valuable overview.
EXAMPLES: Compare the effects of these two passages:
The inscriptions on the gravestones were obscured by darkness but the marble was still cracked by Jason’s hammer-strike as a photograph was taken by a hidden camera.
Darkness obscured the gravestone inscriptions but Jason cracked the marble with a hammer strike as a hidden camera took a photograph.
A common purpose of passive use is to change the focus of attention in the sentence from the subject to the object.
Active: The whale swallowed Pinocchio. An ACTIVE sentence emphasizes who did something (the doer).
Passive: Pinocchio was swallowed by the whale. In the PASSIVE, the object becomes more important than the “doer” and the “doer” of the action becomes the subject.
Also in the passive, the “doer” (1) may not be revealed or (2) may be revealed with the use of “by” followed by the “doer”.
Active: The intruder murdered the woman. (The intruder is the subject “doer”; woman is the object.)
Passive: The woman was murdered. (Object becomes the subject, the “doer” is not revealed.)
Passived: The woman was murdered by the intruder. (“Doer” is revealed at sentence end using “by” followed by the “doer” noun.)
USE OF PASSIVE
In essence, passive is often used when the FOCUS is on:
1) what happened–focus is on the object:
Passive. I was attacked by a stranger. Compare active: A stranger attacked me.
2) who carried out the action.
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was painted by Manet.
3) how the action was carried out:
The solo was played beautifully.
OR when the “DOER”:
4) is unknown.
The cathedral was built in 1245.
5) does not want to be identified
Murders were committed.
Other uses of the passive.
Promotion of indirect objects, idiomatic combinations, prepositional passives, content clauses, impersonal passive, adjectival uses, double passives…
Undoubtedly, most successful prose-fiction storytellers don’t need to spend too much time worrying about the details of passive tense. They default to creating by instinct. But for some literary fiction styles, unnecessary overuse of the passive may be detrimental; the passive may be weaker, wordier, and more indirect than the active which is direct and vigorous. And a passive has potential for erasing who performs the action therefore avoiding the agent’s responsibility for the action. [Example: Crucial statistics were deleted from our files.]
Although avoidance of the passive has been advised by many teachers of writing, the passive is often the better choice for clear expression: when the actor is unimportant, unknown, or needs to be hidden; when the focus of the sentence is on what is being acted upon; to maintain point of view; or simply when it sounds better. (see Bryan A. Garner and Joseph M. Williams below).
In summary, knowledge and controlled use of the passive in literary fiction stories can improve a writer’s style with clarity and focus on verb, subject, object emphasis that improves reader engagement and understanding.
Thanks for reading.
William H. Coles
–Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 676–677. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
-Williams, Joseph M. (2015). Bizup, Joseph, ed. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (5th ed.). Pearson. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-321-95330-8.
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STORY IN FICTION by William H. Coles
Looking for a good book of literary fiction?
TRY: The Surgeon’s Wife by William H. Coles
[and other novels and short stories: McDowell, Guardian of Deceit, The Spirit of Want, Sister Carrie, Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016]