So you’ve written a scene packed with action, ripe with conflict, and filled with tension – but every time you read it, the writing feels flat. The problem may be that you’re writing in passive rather than active voice.
Active voice is when the subject of the sentence does (or acts upon) something. In the following active voice sentence, the subject (streak of light), does something (arcs):
The streak of light arced across the sky as if a falling star.
Passive voice, however, occurs when the subject is acted upon. For example, the above sentence in passive voice would be written as:
Arcing across the sky, as if a falling star, was a streak of light.
Passive voice generally should be avoided, for a couple of reasons:
• It’s dull – It’s like telling you something “exists.” In the above example, the author really is saying “In the sky exists a streak of light.” Sleeker and more economical, active voice speeds up the story.
• It’s awkward – Notice how the phrase “as if a falling star” seems stuck in the middle of the sentence, as if it is out of place. Rewriting the sentence so it’s in active voice would give the phrase a place to fit.
• It’s wordy – The passive voice sentence above says in 14 words what the active voice sentence says in 13 words. One word may not seem like much, but in a 100,000-word novel, it can mean a few unnecessary pages of copy.
Of course, sometimes “passive voice” is needed. You do need, on occasion, to tell people that something “exists,” especially when writing exposition. In addition, you don’t want to overdo it with active voice. The reader can only go at high speed so long before getting motion sickness.
How do you know if you have a passive voice sentence? Look for “being verbs” – these are verbs that show the subject “exists.” There are only eight being verbs: is, are, am, was, were, be, being and been. Also, look for the three words had, has and have, which are week fill-ins for the verb “possess”. If any of those words appear in your sentence, you need an active verb.
Converting passive to active voice is a simple process. First, identify the sentence’s subject, or who/what the sentence is doing something. For example, in the passive sentence “Through him was running an icy shiver,” “shiver” is the subject.
Next, place the subject at the sentence’s beginning. You would then have a sentence that reads “An icy shiver through him was running.”
Then identify the verb, or the words that describe what the subject is doing. In this case, its “was running.” Place those words immediately after the subject so that the sentence now reads “An icy shiver was running through him.”
Finally, get economical by cutting out the being words – in this case “was” – and reworking the verb so it makes sense in the sentence. The sentence we’re working on now would read “An icy shiver ran through him.”
You now have a sentence in active voice.
Sometimes you may have to replace the being verb with an active voice verb that actually shows action. For example, in the passive sentence “Miles of salt flats, a dry bed of crimson and pastel green, is between them”, “is” needs to be replaced with a verb. “Separated” would work much better. The sentence “Miles of salt flats, a dry bed of crimson and pastel green, separated them” is in active voice.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.