By Sammy Bina
For the longest time, I had no idea what passive voice was. You’d think, as a creative writing major, a professor would’ve explained that at one point or another. I learned a lot of things while taking workshops in college, but passive voice was somehow always passed over for lessons on condensing plot and the importance of realistic dialogue. And while those lectures were incredibly useful, I wish someone had taken the time to tell me why passive voice can be so destructive to your writing.
I found this nifty worksheet a while back, which defines passive voice as the following:
A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.
If that didn’t make any sense to you, it also included the following example which, I find, is much easier to understand.
Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:
Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject. The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses
I’ve come back to this sheet numerous times when trying to spot my own passive sentences. Susan’s fantastic post about using filter words has also become a go-to resource. Why? Because my first drafts are riddled with passive voice and filter words. Though I know not to use them, they somehow always creep into my manuscript, hiding until I come back for revisions. Maybe it’s because I’m so focused on getting the story down that I don’t pay much attention to what words I’m using. But now that I’m well into revising my current WIP, I’ve had to edit out a decent amount of filter words and passive sentence construction. I’d sent my manuscript to a friend to look over, and she pointed out that a specific event in chapter one wasn’t immediate enough. Want to take a gander as to why?
That’s right. Passive voice and filter words.
Weeks later, I’ve gone back and hopefully corrected all of my earlier slip-ups. In the hopes of teaching by example, I thought I’d share a small excerpt of my current project, SILENCE. The first will be from before revisions, and the second is the current, updated version. I think you’ll be able to see and feel the difference!
We were running, my lungs burning as I sucked in the frigid November air. My eyes were stinging, and I couldn’t stop the tears as the wind continued to pummel us. My parents were on either side of me, hands clenched into fists as we sprinted up Bridge Street, the rest of the rebels only steps behind. In the distance, we could hear the Guard calling out to us, demanding our immediate surrender.
None of us stopped.
The chase continued for what seemed like hours, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. My entire body ached, and I could feel the others losing momentum as we pushed against the gale. Snow stung my skin and turned it pink, and my feet slipped on ice as we rounded the corner, the bridge only a few hundred feet away. I could see the woods and felt my heart soar – we were going to make it! I’d grown up in the woods; I knew how to hide. If I could get there, I’d be safe.
But I didn’t make it. None of us did. The sound of high-powered rifles filled the night. Pop-pop-pop. I saw someone to the right of me go down in a spray of red.
“Go!” Papa yelled, shoving both my mother and I.
I turned around just in time to see my father fall face-first into the snow. I opened my mouth to scream, but my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me forward.
“Run, Neva.” I felt two hands on my back as she shoved me, propelling me toward the trees. “Whatever you do, don’t stop running.”
And I did exactly what she told me not to. I stopped. Right there, in the middle of the bridge, not thirty feet from the treeline, I stopped. My mother was lying in the snow, one arm outstretched. It was almost as if she were reaching for me. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the desperation and fear that still lingered there. Something inside my chest shattered, and I took a step forward, desperate to get to her.
“Mom?” I whispered, hesitant. I knew she was dead, but part of me just couldn’t believe it. I needed to see for myself. I needed to know for sure.
I was running, my lungs burning as I sucked in the frigid November air. My eyes stung and I couldn’t stop the tears as the wind pummeled my body. My parents were on either side of me, hands clenched into fists as we sprinted up Bridge Street, the rest of the rebels only steps behind. In the distance, the Guard called out to us, demanding our immediate surrender.
No one stopped.
I pushed myself even harder, arms pumping at my sides. My entire body ached. Sleet pricked my skin and turned it pink, and my feet slipped on ice as we rounded another corner. The bridge was only a few hundred feet away, swaying dangerously back and forth. I saw the woods beyond it and my heart soared. If I could make it past the tree line, I’d be safe.
But I didn’t. None of us did. The sound of high-powered rifles filled the night. Pop-pop-pop. Someone to the right of me went down in a spray of red.
“Go!” Papa yelled, shoving both my mother and I.
The driving force behind me fell away. I turned around just in time to see my father fall face-first into the snow. I opened my mouth to scream but my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me onto the bridge. I stumbled, reaching out to steady myself. The rope left a splotchy, crimson burn on the palm of my hand.
Mom had stopped to signal the others to disperse but she was too late. Most of the rebels were lying in the snow, scattered across the clearing. My heart dropped into my stomach as I stood there, my breath forming tiny puffs in the night air.
The planks beneath my feet shivered as she came back to retrieve me. “Run, Neva,” she ordered, propelling me toward the woods. “Whatever you do, don’t stop running.”
We took off in the direction of the trees, their branches like open arms. The green patches untouched by snow were welcome mats, inviting me closer. Cold air burned my lungs but I pushed forward, desperately seeking the cover the woods would provide.
And then I did exactly what I’d been told not to. I stopped. Right there, in the middle of the bridge. I was less than twenty feet from the tree line, but I couldn’t take another step. My mother lay in the snow, one arm outstretched toward me. Red curls fanned out across the snow, long tendrils whipping back and forth in the breeze. Her coat was red, but it didn’t match the spray of muddy crimson around her. I forced myself to move toward her.
“Mom?” I whispered. She was dead – I knew it – but acceptance was slow in coming. I needed to see for myself.
Hopefully I’m not delusional in thinking the second one is more immediate. I cut some passive phrases and pulled as many filter words as I could catch. I think it’s really important to read your own writing back to yourself. Out loud, if you can. For some reason I have a much easier time catching awkward phrasing when I’m actually speaking.
There aren’t really any hard or fast rules for writing with immediacy. However, passive voice is definitely a no-no, and filter words can also take away the importance of a moment. Certain scenes call for very immediate action, especially when told in first person (*cough*HUNGERGAMES*cough*).The way a scene is written can really make a difference for the reader. We may not have cared about Katniss so much if everything had been very ho-hum, “Hi, I’m Katniss. I like bows and arrows and boys who bake bread. And also boys whose names remind me of storms. Now I’m in this big ol’ arena and think I’ll go shoot some things.” I mean, come on. That would make for a really boring story. What drew readers in was how immediate everything felt. You constantly were in the moment with her, and thus able to relate to her and her situation.
What I’ve been working on is really envisioning the scene in my head. I try to put myself in my character’s shoes and observe everything as they would. Obviously I saw something, so I don’t need to reference that every time something happens (ie: “I saw such and such happen.”) Things like that can be difficult to catch, but the more aware of it you become, the easier it is to spot. As they say, practice makes perfect. So make yourself aware of the problems that could detract from the immediacy in your writing. Know what to look for and work to avoid it as best you can. I doubt I’ll ever have a first draft that’s free of passive voice and filter words, but with each book I write, I’ve been able to catch more and more. I know you’ll be able to do the same.
Sammy Bina is finishing up her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She’s currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.