Friday, February 15, 2008

Passive and Voice

I've been thinking about voice and word choice lately, and I just want to point out that one of the worst things you can do to alienate your reader and destroy voice is to cast your prose in the passive. By this I mean both the grammatical passive (X was done by Y) and the stylistic passive (Bread was eaten, stomachs were happy.) And now that I've said this I'm sure someone is going to protest that that's how that character expresses him/herself. Look, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general, passive = bad. It's like throwing up a wall between the reader and the character. It's telling, rather than letting us live the event along with the character. It prevents us from being in the character's head because in many cases, we don't even know who the character is who's doing it.

Take this example. Which version puts you into the scene more?

The princess stood in the kitchen and watched as the bread was made. The dough was rolled and twisted to form shapes. Then it was set carefully on a pan to rise. The formed, risen dough was then placed gently into the ovens. After fifteen minutes it was removed and shown to the princess. "Take it away!" she cried. "We don't like rolls formed in S-shapes!"


The princess stood in the kitchen and watched the bakers making bread. The largest baker rolled the dough with long, fat arms and twisted it with practiced fingers. He set each form carefully onto the waiting pan and pushed it aside to rise. Next to him, a smaller baker with her hair tied back lifted a pan of puffy rolls and slid it gently into the open oven. After fifteen minutes she hefted her spatula and lifted the pan out. "What do you think?" she asked the princess, holding the pan out for inspection.

"Take it away!" the princess cried. "You know we don't like S-shaped rolls!"

Okay, not spectacular writing, but still. We know who the actors are. And that makes all the difference.

If you would like to share an example, please do!


Sarah said...

Another great post.
Passive voice is commonly tell and active is usually show.

It is better to show than tell.
An example. This is from the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, written around 1300. Note--the sagas are powerful, even though there is no tell in the stories. If one can move people, like the sagas can, by using only tell, he is a master storyteller.

Ch 18
"There was a man named Hrolleif, nicknamed, 'The tall'. He came from Norway with his mother, who was named Ljot, and made land by the Hvita river. Her disposition was not much admired, and in her behavior she was a law unto herself, as was only to be expected because she had little enough in common with the most ordinary good-natured folk. Her son's temperament matched her own. ...Hrolleif was a very strong man but misused his strength against lesser men; he was provocative and overbearing and, under his mother's influence, repaid good with bad."

I want a scene that shows me what is told. Show me the mother being the law. Show me how the son abuses his power. These possible scenes do not exist. At least they were not written down.

Of amusement: Ljot means ugly. There are boring sections in the sagas, but there is also excitement, but we only know what the individuals feel by their actions and words.
This is a rare point of view, sometimes referred to as "fly on a wall."

I've seen many modern examples of passive. But this is a better example to share.

Rose Green said...

Yes, this is a great example of the distancing power of passive grammar/style. Even though "was" is not technically passive, it has the same distancing effect (obviously there are times when you can't say it any other way--"She had red hair" is generally the most effective, for example). The Fairy Tale Voice uses a lot of "was" telling, with the effect that you feel like you're being told a story--and that you can't possibly really be inside that story. I guess if you don't want readers to suspend disbelief, it's okay, but I WANT my readers to believe in my story/characters!