Is There a Role for Passive Text?

Talking about writing rules, one of the first that got drummed into me (actually, more like beaten into me — around the head with what was left of my frayed manuscript) was the importance of active writing; making the prose immediate, rather than passive. The shorthand for this is ‘Show don’t Tell’. You could do a lot worse than plough through your manuscript with this mantra repeating in your head. Certainly for action, it’s an absolute must. But it really got me wondering — is this really universally applicable?

Some of the books I admired most as a young reader, such as Lord of the Rings, were full of passive text. Huge wads of backstory and enormously long sentences that would never get past a modern editor. Yet it worked. Another book I admire tremendously is Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. Accustomed to more modern prose, the passive style put me off initially, but it did not take me long (about two pages), to get sucked right in. That book is an absolute classic.

I guess one of the things that is really attractive about passive prose (often combined with an omniscient PoV) is that it has a sort of reflective power, enabling a deeper level of insight to be injected into the work — be it on the level of character or life, the universe and everything. That sort of thing is difficult with strictly ‘active’ prose. Often tongue and cheek humor also works best in a passive mode (outside of dialogue that is). I think this is one of the things that I tried to emulate in my first attempts to write fantasy, which in my case came off as excessive backstory with overly grandiose metaphors (hey – don’t say anything about PoV!).

The other thing about active prose is that is takes space. I often wonder if there is a case for a blend of active and passive prose, just for the sake of economy. Its a lot faster to say ‘Joe survived the battle, running from the fiends of the Hegemon with his sword between his legs,’ than to go through the whole scene recounting every shiver of fear and blood-filled drop of sweat. If the scene is not really that crucial to the story, but merely a bridge, does it really matter?

Is just makes me wonder. Is passive text total taboo, or is it just one more tool, and perhaps a valid one in some cases?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

16 comments

  1. An author friend of mine who tended to be avuncular told the story of another author he’d helped, a merchant seaman by trade. His prose was very long-winded and his editor wanted him to cut some of it out. One section the main character was on a ship and had to go from stern to stem and in forty pages of narrative prose, he did so, He discussed as the character as went towards the prow each thing the character saw on his trip in glowing detail. My friend drew a line through the passage and substituted “He went forward.” Yeah, modern editors are tough on unending prose.

  2. When one has a serious drinking problem, the most effective advice isn’t moderated consumption…it’s quitting. “You have a problem. That problem prevents you from being able to know reliably what ‘moderation’ entails, as applied to your present circumstances at any given moment. Therefore, stop entirely, because no matter how impaired your judgment might be, ‘don’t do it at all’ is always clear.”

    There is a certain category of amateur writer who has exactly this sort of problem…except that it’s not a problem with alcohol, but a problem with passive voice.

    There is also a certain category of editors, writing teachers, and other givers-of-advice to aspiring authors, who — having been previously exposed to intolerably enormous mounds of prose exhibiting exactly that problem — have developed a sort of intellectual allergy, to the point where the merest _contemplation_ of reading anything hinting of passive voice causes them to break out in a cold sweat and run screaming in terror. Their prevalence and vehemence in opposition to the passive voice has caused generations of their fellows to confuse the “Active Voice Only” rule (properly applied, as with total abstinence from anything else, only to those who have a serious problem) with a commandment from God, applicable to all humanity at all times and in all places.

    It is not. It was never intended to be. But lots of folks think it is.

    On balance, this is not, I think, as great a tragedy as it might appear. The sort of fiction that originally inspired the rule may not actually kill you and those around you, the way habitual drunkenness can, but reading too much of it can easily inspire the desire to kill writers. But it is nevertheless good to remember always Cherryh’s Law: No rule should be followed off a cliff.

    1. I think you are right about how sick editors get of seeing passive voice. I know I did when I was reviewing, critiquing, and editing in college.

      Sadly, I believe the public education system is to blame for the prevalence of passive voice among new writers. All I have to support this is anecdotal and personal experience. For what it is worth, even on my college exams I was scored better when using passive voice on everything from English to engineering. The latter may have some excuse, as most scientific papers begin as “An experiment was performed…” because that is the accepted form.

      Passive voice does indeed have a role in writing fiction. Like so many of the ‘rules’ I’ve seen, yeah it’s about moderation. But like it so many other jobs I’ve done, it’s usually better to learn ‘the rules’ first. The second stage of learning is recognizing the rules are not always right. The last stage is knowing when (and how) to break them.

      Individual characters can use passive voice pretty freely. Maybe that’s just the way this android was programmed, or it is showing how this character is nervous and afraid, or part of how that one is pompous and full of his own overblown education. I can think of other uses, too, depending on what effect they might have on the story in the reader’s mind.

      1. Hi, Dan. The voice of the character gives you great freedom doesn’t it? It’s fun to write in their voice, with slang, abbreviated sentences and all the other things that usually drive editors mad:)

    2. Hi, Lelnet. Some fantastic analogies there – the drinking problem & the ‘intellectual allergy’ – brilliant:) You’ve captured that brilliantly. It’s like that. Some editors just react in the extreme.

  3. lelnet, that was awesome.

    I was just going to say: use it as appropriate, in balance, in moderation – and rely on your experience as an author – you are not a newbie.

    The passive voice is a TOOL. All tools are dangerous – and we couldn’t write without them.

    The important part is that the writer know which tool is being used – and WHY – and have everything under control (or just be naturally good at it).

    It’s all in what you can get away with – and what tells the story you want to tell. Period. End of story. Go ahead. Proceed with caution…

  4. To me the passive voice is a tool. It has places where it works, and places where it really causes more damage than it fixes. Was the character swept downstream, or did the river carry him? If he’s got a concussion and isn’t trying to fight the current, I’d use the passive voice. *shrug*

    Over the past few years, more and more academic editors are demanding an end to the passive voice. I wonder if it has to do with *gasp* trying to sell the books to a larger readership. (But then there’s the legendary editor at [Ox-Crossing-a-Stream] University Press who ordered writers to dull down their work, lest it seem too frivolous. Because encyclopedia entries about the history of monetary policy are such gripping material to begin with . . .)

  5. On “show don’t tell” Patricia Wrede once said, “It’s all telling.”

    My own opinion is that the problem is usually one of writing summary… in the wrong places. A new writer with this problem might benefit from being told to show rather than tell. A more experience writer might benefit from being told to stop being mushy and get to the point. But you’ve got to summarize, too. You need all those little transitions and jumps in time and getting your characters where they’ve got to go and explaining the back story that’s got to be explained.

    On the issue of passive or active voice: Does changing a sentence around to avoid was -ing but essentially retaining the same sentences in the same order fix whatever might have been wrong? (*If* anything was wrong.) Granted, I can’t think of any reason not to say “he ran” instead of “he was running”, which isn’t *passive* actually, but is one of those things that people high-light as passive.

    Strictly, passive removes the actor from a sentence. As someone said… “The experiment was performed…” But we use that construction because we put the most important element first in the sentence. It’s not *bad* writing to do that. So emphasis is different between “Vandals tore down our signs!” and “Our signs were torn down!” If the important part is the vandals, it needs to be there. If the important part is the signs, the vandals might be a distraction.

    Passive is a powerful way to manipulate the emphasis in a sentence. It’s probably true that usually the most important thing is who the actors are and what they did. But sometimes it’s not going to be, so sometimes the right thing to do is use a passive construction.

    1. Hi, Synova. Nice way to illustrate the use of passive voice. I think it’s important to have lots of tools in the arsenal:) In the end though, it’s all instictive for me.

    2. If the important part is the vandals, it needs to be there. If the important part is the signs, the vandals might be a distraction.
      That fits in well with TXRed’s comment.

      “He was washed helplessly downstream before finally being gently washed ashore on the sandy bank of an eddy pool miles, miles from where he’d been thrown in”
      vs
      “The robbers tossed him into the river to drown. The river carried him away for an age before eventually depositing him on the bank of an eddy pool.”

      If you want toe focus of the reader to be on the person being washed then the passive example makes more sense.. Otherwise you are thinking about the robbers, the river and so on

  6. Passive voice is to be used, where appropriate.

    Latin is enjoyed, a little, by me.

    Matching Latin grammar to English is helped by the passive voice.

    The passive voice shall be used by me, as a tool.

    Voice is to be used as discipline, for learning writing, where fun.

    Carthage ought to be destroyed,
    T**m S***** n**d k****n’

    PS. I’m bad at Latin. My English is not the greatest. I’d hate to only have active voice for technical writing. I expect to do a lot of technical writing in my life. I love passive periphrastic.

  7. Nearly every “great” opening line to a story (that I can remember) is passive voice. So there’s certainly a place for it.

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