You may have heard using the passive voice is “incorrect.” In fiction writing, however, the passive voice can be used. It is not so much incorrect as “When is it appropriate?”
Before discussing the answer to that question, I’d like to offer a brief review of the difference between passive voice and active voice.
Sentences written in the passive voice have the subject being acted upon:
The basketball was dunked by Eli.
Now, if the previous example were to be written in the active voice, it would look like this:
Eli dunked the basketball.
Most people would agree this sentence written in the active voice is more concise and direct. In fiction writing, these traits are desirable. One thing I’ve discovered: passive voice is acceptable in non-fiction, such as academic writing. In this posting, I’ve used the passive voice several times.
So what is the answer to the question when is it appropriate? Passive voice is acceptable in fiction writing when:
- The subject is unknown.
The magic scrolls were written centuries ago.
- The action is more important.
I was cursed as a child.
- The object is the main topic in discussion.
The villagers were conquered by the warlord.
- The actions are combined for conciseness.
Later that day, the potions were stocked and the elixirs catalogued.
- It sounds more natural.
Tillydrone was established centuries ago. (passive)
Someone established Tillydrone centuries ago. (active)
To build on the above examples, using the passive voice is effective in fiction writing when the author wants to withhold information from the reader or to create a certain emphasis.
Sleeping spells were chanted.
The most powerful wand ever forged was pointed toward the royal family.
In fiction writing, active voice is preferred most of the time; however, passive voice can be appropriate when used as in the examples above.
Take a scene from your work in progress and search for passive sentences. Ask yourself if the sentence would be better written in the active voice. If you want to create a certain emphasis or effect, consider using passive voice for the reasons mentioned in this blog posting.
Read more on use of the passive voice in fiction writing:
- The effect of passive voice on your fiction-writing style
- Fiction Novels & Active vs. Passive Voice
- Passive Voice
- Fiction writing: When you might want to use passive voice
- Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It
Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels
Thanks for this, Andrew – it makes sense to think about passive voice from a fiction vs non-fiction writing angle, yes. Perhaps passive voice lends itself more naturally to academic writing because of its denser, more concept-driven nature… I also wrote a post on this, would love your thoughts! https://hyperbolit.com/2020/04/25/should-i-ever-use-passive-voice-in-writing/