Monday, October 19, 2009

Meaty Mondays: The Form of Passive Voice

Today's post is one I'd love some discussion on, because I'm not speaking with any authority on this issue; it's just something I've noticed.

First, the backstory:

I struggled with getting rid of passive voice in my writing because, even after educating myself on what it was, I still had trouble seeing it.

I have an intuitive understanding of English only. Don't ask me what a participle is; I dunno. But I do know if a sentence sounds right, and that's my trouble with passive voice: it's not wrong. My brain doesn't kick me and say, 'that made no sense.'

I'm pretty good, now, at avoiding writing in the passive voice, but it still sneaks in once in a while.

This post isn't about that.

Before I get to what it is about, however, a refresher on what passive voice is:

Passive Voice:
The ball was caught by the woman.
The ball was caught.

Active Voice:
The woman caught the ball.
That 'by [the noun]' construction at the end of the sentence is the tip-off--even when it's not there. If your sentence either has 'by [the noun]' or could have it, then you're using passive voice.

Passive voice divorces intention from your character. The woman caught the ball, but did she intend to? Can she be blamed for it? Why should the reader care about stuff that just sorta-kinda happens? Passive voice implies passivity on the part of the person who is acting, and it creates an emotional distance between the reader and that character. Both things give the reader too much opportunity to become disengaged from the story.

Remember in this post, I noted the construction '[This] was [that]' (e.g. '[The sky] was [blue]') is a form of 'telling', rather than 'showing'. You've informed the reader of a fact, rather than trying to force the reader's imagination to picture what you're saying.

Passive voice is telling also. '[The ball] was [caught]' is the same construction as '[The ball] was [red]'.

But that is not what this post is about, either.

This is a bit weird, but I want to talk about the form of passive voice--as in the actual order of words on the page.

Compare the form of the following two sentences:
1a) The ball was caught.

1b) She caught the ball.
with these two sentences:
2a) The sky filled with clouds.

2b) Clouds filled the sky.
Sentence (2a) is not passive voice. However, I would argue it's like passive voice, in that it has a similar structure. Instead of having 'was' there to tip you off that your writing isn't as visceral as it could be, you have the word 'with'.

Here's some more examples:
The room filled with people.

His face lit with joy.

She splashed the salad with vinaigrette.
Like passive voice, there's nothing at all wrong with these sentences. Furthermore, they have the merit of being invisible--the reader's mind is not going to hiccup over any of these.

Although we should strive for effective prose, there's a great many bestsellers that prove the only real rule for fiction prose is that it be invisible, i.e. the reader should only be aware of the story blooming in their head, not the words on the page.

However, compare the above sentences to the following ones:
People clogged the room.

Joy lit his face.

She jostled the bottle, and vinaigrette splashed the salad.
In two of those cases, at least, I can argue the '[This][did something] with [that]' construction should be avoided simply to adhere to Strunk and White's rule of "Omit needless words."

However, I'd also argue the second batch of sentences are a bit more vivid and active than the first. This may just be because they're more unusual constructions, and thus strike me as fresher. I don't know.

I wouldn't suggest avoiding the '[This][did something] with [that]' construction in every case, but I think it's worth rethinking sentences that use it. Using a variety of sentence structures always spices up prose, and I'm fond of this particular method of changing things around.

What do you think? Is saying 'Joy lit his face' intrusive to your writerly ear, or do you like the construction? Do you use this form already? If not, do you think you might start? Do you think I'm addled to draw a parallel between '[This][did something] with [that]' and passive voice? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment trail.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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