Welcome to Part 3 of “My Stories Under the Microscope” or “MSUM”, where I run 13 of my short stories through Hemingway and take a closer look at the results.
This time it’s all about the passive voice.
First, let’s have a (maybe not so quick) refresher. If you don’t need a refresher, feel free to skip to the next heading!
Passive voice is when the subject of your sentence is being acted upon instead of doing the acting. For example:
“Sage ate the last burger.” is active voice.
“The last burger was eaten by Sage.” is passive voice.
“The last burger was eaten.” is also passive voice.
If you need a trick to help you identify passive voice, try adding “by unicorns” to the sentence (you can replace unicorns with whatever you like, mythical creatures, cryptids, kaiju…) – if it still makes sense, it’s passive voice. “The last burger was eaten by unicorns” = passive voice. [I take no credit for this trick, it was taught to me by my good friend and writing buddy, Robyn Sarty. Thanks Robs!]
The passive voice sentences are completely valid but they do feel a bit limp. The action has already taken place. It has been acted, it has gone to the great theatre in the sky, it is an ex-action. And if you caught that reference, we are destined to be the very best of friends.
In narrative fiction, generally speaking, we want action that is strong and direct. We want boom-boom, not womp-womp.
Passive voice does have its uses: anywhere where the action is more important than the actor (sorry, theatre buds), we want to use passive voice – think historical accounts (“The war was won.”), legal documents (“The motion was denied.”), scientific reports (“The results were recorded.”) etc. It can also be used to avoid or deflect blame. This is a particular favourite trick of politicians. It acknowledges the action without stating who is responsible or what the solution or follow-up action is.
Remember: both active and passive voice can be used to great effect, but active is generally considered stronger for narrative fiction.
Now that we’re all caught up, let’s take a closer look at my work and the results from Hemingway.
As with adjectives, the “allowable” is proportional to the word count of the piece. Again, it’s not an exact formula but it works out to be roughly 2% of the word count per piece. Looking at the graph, I don’t seem to be terribly guilty of this particular “problem”, but let’s take a closer look at one of my more passive pieces.
This is an excerpt from Landslide:
If we rewrite the passive “Everything was covered in a haze.” as active “A haze covered everything.” we get a stronger, more present sentence. I’m kicking myself for not having written it that way in the first place, but if I had we wouldn’t have this example to learn from.
“They couldn’t be returned now.” would also be more impactful in the active voice: “She couldn’t return them now.”
So far, so good. It seems we have a pretty solid case for active being better than passive.
But now take a look at the third highlighted section: “They were ruined.”
This is a great example of a passive sentence which is not improved by being rewritten into active voice, for two reasons. The first is that, while “The rain had ruined them.” is a perfectly good sentence, it is also less simple and less punchy than its passive counterpart. The second is that the active version does not make sense when read with the following sentence: “Like she was.”
This post has turned out to be about 3x longer than I intended it to be, so I’m going to wrap it here and say that I’ll be back soon with MSUM Part 4 – simpler alternatives to complex sentences. I’m also working on a post about writing with/around mental health issues and/or chronic illness, a topic requested by another dear friend, Richard Bat Brewster.