Is it always a sin to use passive voice in your fiction?

Having sat through many grammar lectures and having proudly displayed Strunk and White on my bookshelf for years, I’ve had passive voice pretty well drilled out of me. Like a lot of folks, I was taught to limit my usage of be-verbs (any form of the verb “to be”; aka “am is are was were be being been”). Yes, I have that little string memorized and can rattle it off in less than 2.5 seconds. I’ve heard everything from never use them to limit yourself to one or two be-verbs per page.

But that kind of advice makes be-verbs out to be synonymous with passive voice, which isn’t really the case. Grammar Girl has an excellent post on passive voice in which she defines passive voice using sentence structure (object-verb-subject) as opposed to the mere presence of be-verbs.

Now that you’ve read Grammar Girl’s tips and are an expert on why active voice is generally preferable to passive voice in writing, I’ll admit that having a keen eye for be-verbs can be helpful in tightening your work and making it more active. That said, be-verbs aren’t the devil. They are not to be avoided at all cost. In fact, those cute little verbs can be really useful.

I mentioned my undergrad grammar lectures. Well, with my Communications degree (minor in English) snugly under my belt, I then went to grad school and began writing scientific papers. Do you know how many be-verbs go into a scientific paper? I bet someone has done a study on it and written up the results with no fewer than 25 be-verbs per page.

It’s totally acceptable and even preferable to use passive voice in scientific papers, because often the grammatical subject (person or thing doing the action in the sentence) isn’t important. For example, you often see sentences like this in a scientific paper: “Fifty participants were screened using the blah blah blah test of whatever.” It’s not important who did the screening. (In case you’re curious, it’s usually the lab assistant.)

Sometimes in fiction, it is also unimportant who does the action, or it’s simply unknown.

For example: The train could be felt thundering by no less than eight times per day and no less than a thousand times per night.

And sometimes in fiction the emphasis needs to be on the person or thing that has been acted upon (the subject)rather than on the one doing the acting (object).

For example: The body was found by a homeless guy who screamed until a beat cop happened by.

Those are pretty much the two times it’s okay to use passive voice in writing according to conventional thinking. This great web page on passive voice gives more examples and has a quiz at the bottom where you can practice rewriting passive sentences, if that’s your idea of a fun time–for me, it totally is!

But I think there are other times when passive voice is okay, like if it’s part of your voice as a writer. Lot’s of great modern writers use be-verbs fairly liberally in their writing without making their stories passive in the least. One example is Janet Evanovich (if you’ve never read her, you need to. She rocks the bounty hunter genre!).

We were both caught by surprise, the two of us crashing into the coffee table, going down to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. And in an instant I was pinned beneath him, which was not an entirely unpleasant experience once I realized it was Ranger. We were groin to groin, chest to chest, with his hands locked around my wrists. A moment passed while we did nothing but breathe. (Evanovich, Janet. 2010-04-01. Hot Six (Stephanie Plum, No. 6), p. 166. Macmillan. Kindle Edition. )

Four be-verbs. Some critics would be shaking their finger, saying, you could write that paragraph so much more powerfully without those be verbs. The paragraph is so passive! Make it more active!

Really? I’m not bored reading that. I’m on the edge of my seat. Sure you could reword it to say, “Surprise caught both of us” or “Surprise made my heart stutter in my chest, and it probably did the same to him” or any number of other rewrites, but that kind of nit-picking drastically changes the author’s quick-paced, take-nothing-too-seriously voice. Ms. Evanovich has a voice that brings Stephanie Plum to vibrant life, and that voice includes a generous smattering of to-be verbs, both in passive context and in the past progressive (“Lula was waving the chicken bucket and paper bag, and we were running full tilt when the woman looked up and saw us.” (Hot Six, p. 142).

All that is not to say you should not take care to limit passive voice in your writing. Your writing MUST be active if you expect to attract and keep readers. But if you want to write something like, The next morning, Grandma and I were both hung over (Hot Six, p. 169) and that’s your style, I say go for it!


About Jessi Gage

Jessi lives with her husband and children in the Seattle area. She’s a passionate reader of all genres of romance, especially anything involving the paranormal. Ghosts, demons, vampires, witches, weres, name it, she’ll read it. As for writing, she's sticking to Highlanders and contemporaries with a paranormal twist (for now). A career student (aka indecisive and inquisitive bookworm), Jessi brings her love of research to her worlds and characters. Her guiding tenet in her writing is that good always trumps evil, but not before evil gives good one heck of a run for its money. The last time she imagined a world without romance novels, her husband found her crouched in the corner, rocking.
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2 Responses to Is it always a sin to use passive voice in your fiction?

  1. Amy Raby says:

    Great article! I’ve never been excessively bothered by passive voice. If the prose is holding my attention, I don’t care how it’s written, passive of not. If I’m bored while reading (and I’m critiquing/editing), then I’ll start looking for possible reasons for my boredom, one of which might be passive construction.

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    I’m the same way. I only start analyzing when I’m not lost in the story. Thanks for the comment.

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