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Sometimes it Pays to be Passive

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

In another post in this series, I covered the importance of striving for the use of active voice whenever possible. Though I still stand by favoring active voice over passive, I feel it’s important to acknowledge that there are times where use of the passive voice can be beneficial, and, in fact, the more prudent choice.

Emphasis

One of the main advantages active voice has over passive voice is that it grants greater agency to the subject of the sentence, which is often our protagonist or another character of import. As I’ve argued before, why not keep them in the metaphorical driver’s seat?

Well, sometimes we may want to emphasize the object of the verb rather than the person doing the verbing. Let’s take a look at the example below, and ask ourselves which reading works best given the focus of the paragraph.

“This,” Jah-ru said, “is the belt of atonement.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. And it was.

The leather—red and beaded in all the colors of the rainbow—was as thick and unbreakable as the cultural forces that kept it in use generation after generation… at least according to Jah-ru. It had been crafted hundreds of years earlier, Jah-ru went on to explain, by artisans whose expertise was now lost to the leathersmiths of the modern settlement.

“Would you like to try it on?” Jah-ru said.

“I’d be honored.”

“That you would.” He extended it toward me, only to pull it back a moment later. “But it is only for those who have earned it. And you, my friend, have not yet atoned.”

Did you catch the use of passive voice in there? It’s in the sentence that begins with “It had been crafted…”

An active-voice hardliner would suggest this sentence be rewritten as something like the below.

“Artisans whose expertise was now lost to the leathersmiths of the modern settlement had crafted it hundreds of years earlier.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this phrasing, though it does now begin with a thirteen-word noun phrase. To top that off, the subject of this noun phrase mentions individuals for whom we as readers have no previous context.

Furthermore, the focus of the paragraph—and the scene, insofar as we can tell—is the belt itself. Why take the belt out of focus by putting emphasis on the artisans who crafted it?

This is a perfect example of where the use of passive voice as seen in the first example is the better choice: it keeps the emphasis on the belt, which is the most critical component of the scene.

Concealment

Building on the (admittedly rhetorical) question posed near the end of the previous section, passive voice can also be used to conceal the agent of an action if we as writers decide that information is best left off the page (or if a character wants to prevent others from knowing who committed a certain act, for example).

It would be entirely grammatical to omit “artisans whose expertise was now lost to the leathersmiths of the modern settlement” from the original scene above, but I’d argue that doing so in this case would mean casting aside a significant bit of world-building, as well as a crucial bit of evidence to support Jah-ru’s claims regarding the belt’s durability.

So if we’re going to keep the comment about the artisans in that particular example, in what scenario might we as writers want to conceal the subject of a sentence from readers?

The prosecuting attorney leaned in toward the defendant. “Can you confirm for the record that you personally collected the data in question?”

Eyes darting left, darting right, the defendant gnawed at his upper lip. “Data was collected, yes.”

Stop right there! Data was collected, you say? What a cop-out. Also, such passive voice. Wow.

But this is perfect for the defendant, really, as he is clearly trying to conceal the role of the data collector, regardless of whether it was him or not.

Characters’ attempts to conceal information from others or a narrator’s desire to keep it from the reader need not be as on the nose as this example to show the value of the passive voice when used carefully.

In any case, if we as writers have moments where we think it’d be beneficial to conceal the agent of an action from our readers or other characters, the passive voice with the subject omitted may be the best option for us.

Idea Flow

Consider the following passage:

Since the advent of the monetary system, coins have taken on countless sizes, shapes, and designs. Whether fabricated from iron, silver, copper, or gold, the holders of these tokens have placed an immense value upon them, and not all for their financial value alone. The aforementioned intricacies of size, shape, and design have also led coins to be amassed by collectors.

These collectors, also known as numismatists…

We actually get two examples of passive voice in the above paragraph, but we’ll address the second of these before the first, namely: amassed by collectors.

Imagine we rewrote this sentence into the active, preposing “collectors” to first position. In doing so, we’d ultimately end up with a sentence that looks something like the below.

Collectors have amassed these coins for their intricacies in size, shape, and design.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that phrasing (in fact, it puts “collectors” in the driver’s seat), but let’s see what happens when we then try to roll into the next paragraph.

… intricacies in size, shape, and design.

These collectors, also known as numismatists…

Wait, what? We go from discussing specific points of appreciation these collectors have and into talking about the collectors themselves? That seems a bit abrupt considering there exists the passive alternative as originally presented above.

What makes the passive voice the better option in this scenario? Immediacy.

Immediacy is the notion of keeping similar ideas near one another in the text so that readers are guided more smoothly from one idea, character, or action to the next. You might even notice that I made use of immediacy across the two most recent paragraphs—namely, suggesting the passive alternative was better, then asking why, then introducing immediacy, then defining it immediately thereafter.

Though I employed no passive voice to achieve that idea flow in the last few paragraphs, we still have a demonstration of the effectiveness of immediacy.

It’s for this reason that the passive may again be a better choice at times, all depending upon the context in which it is used.

Irrelevance of Subject

I mentioned earlier that there were two examples of passive voice in the original excerpt on coins. We’ve covered the second of these, but what about the first?

The initial example is hiding a bit, in that we can’t rely on the use of “by” or the overt presence of a subject to identify it. Spotted it yet? If not, here’s the relevant portion again, with the passive voice placed in italics.

… coins have taken on countless sizes, shapes, and designs. Whether fabricated from iron, silver, copper, or gold…

Sneaky, right? This is a passive construction because, though it’s not written as such, one could have rephrased it to be something like either of the below.

Whether fabricated by the Romans from iron, silver, copper, or gold…

Whether the central bank fabricated them from iron, silver, copper or gold…

The first is another passive construction, and the second, our active. Essentially, in the original paragraph on coins we’re seeing the agent of the action being concealed from readers because the agent in this case is simply not relevant. And why provide irrelevant information to readers?

I can’t think of a good answer to that, either. And so, we have another perfect example of how the passive voice might be our best bet sometimes.

Summary

As we’ve seen, there are a few situations in which the use of passive voice may be a better choice than the active. Have you found other uses for the passive voice that you’d add to this list? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments!

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