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Writing Tip: Passive Vs. Active Narrative Voice

March 31, 2015

Happy end of March! I hope everyone had a good month, with the extra special Pi Day, Ides of March, Saint Patrick’s Day, and now Trans Day of Visibility! It’s been a weird month for me, wonderful holidays aside: on the plus side, I got to visit the Invisible Ninja Cat and Charlotte Blackwood in Portland, but on the downside a strange stomach illness left me dehydrated and unable to type for more than two minutes. A whole chunk of the month was me distracting Cesar Reyes from his real life by yelling loudly at Joss Whedon’s cruelty watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m on Season 5, and my poor, tiny Iowa son Buffy’s boyfriend #2 Riley Finn has left Sunnydale. Granted, being stuck there was making him a bit bonkers, but who in that town isn’t??

Anyway, in the midst of all the above vampiric chaos, I finished the 6th draft of my novel, The Bound Chronicles: The Christening and sent it off to beta readers. One thing I really worked on this draft is writing in a more active voice.

At the Ventura County Writer’s Weekend I attended, I was lucky enough other writers and professionals look at the first 10 pages of my manuscript. They immediately noted that my writing style was passive and encouraged me to use more active voice. I was (unhelpfully) immediately confused. See, when someone says “passive voice” to me, my brain goes to the grammatical passive voice, where a writer switches around the subject and the object of the sentence. This is a no-no for writers because a) your sentences become super funky very quickly and b) it makes the story feel a bit blasé. For example:

Buffy punched Spike in the face because he smoked ciggys outside her bedroom window. (Active voice)

Versus:

Spike was punched in the face by Buffy because ciggys were smoked by him outside her bedroom window. (Passive voice)

You can read a Grammar Girl’s more specific explanation of active versus passive voice here.

This was not what was wrong with my story. I avoided this grammatical passive voice. I had a passive narrative voice.

The passive narrative voice is when an author overuses the present perfect and past perfect tenses (have/has/had). The writing overall feels flat and, well, passive. The story and characters perform actions in the distance, away from the reader. The resulting prose is grammatically ship shape, but consider this:

Riley has been loving Buffy with his whole heart and soul.

Versus:

Riley loves Buffy with his whole heart and soul.

Didn’t the later sentence have more pure snap to it? Riley loves Buffy in the here and now. It’s a more powerful, set statement, even the first sentence uses “i-n-g.” Consider again:

Buffy has been shutting Riley out emotionally, and Riley has not been developing significant ties to Sunnydale besides her. (Passive Narrative Voice)

Versus:

Buffy shut Riley out emotionally, and Riley did not develop significant ties to Sunnydale besides her. (Active Narrative Voice)

Again, the second sentence has a more pressing feel to it. The hard “t” of “shut” like a door in the face. The despair of the “did not.” The authority of the un-modified, plain verbs.

That’s what the pros thought my manuscript needed, and, boy, were they right. Look through your writing and find some instances of passive narrative voice. Read that section out loud. Now, change the instances of passive voice to active voice. Are you amazed? I was amazed. I could feel my novel improving, one line at a time.

Tomorrow begins my first Camp NaNoWriMo, so the blog post will likely be about that. Wish me luck! Magical creatures, ahoy!

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From → Writing Tips

2 Comments
  1. Hello dear! So, first off, GO PORTLAND. Secondly, GREAT post. This is something lots of authors (myself most definitely included) struggle with. I’ve actually been trying to purge my own manuscript of this fiend which is why I still have yet to send it back to you. Nearly done, though. 😀

    -C

    • Thank you and huzzah for nearly purging all the fiends! I’m ready for your MS to be unleashed whenever you are.

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