Should I use passive or active voice in fiction writing and how?

Updated: Aug 1, 2018

The difference between active and passive voice

In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is doing the action.

In a passive voice, the object of the sentence is promoted to the subject's position.

Many people use passive voice because they think it makes them look smarter. Using a passive voice creates verbose sentences where the meaning is often obfuscated.

Put the subject first, then object

Here is an example:

Passive: Mandy is hated by Felicity.

Active: Felicity hates Mandy.

What both sentences are trying to say is that Felicity (the subject of the sentence) hates Mandy (the object of the sentence).

Here is another example:

Passive: Chocolate is loved by me.

Active: I love chocolate.

It gets confusing and messy when I put the object of the sentence (the chocolate) ahead of the subject of the sentence (myself).

Sometimes, the subject and object of the sentence isn't obvious.

Here is an example:

Passive: It was decreed by the government that all citizens should receive an icecream.

Active: The government decreed that all citizens receive an icecream.

Here, the subject of the sentence is the government because they're the ones making the decree. The object of the sentence is the citizens because they are the ones receiving the icecream.

Be careful to keep the sentence in the same tense (past, present, or future) when changing it from passive to active.

For example:

Passive (in past tense): The picnic was enjoyed by Tammy

Active (in past tense): Tammy enjoyed the picnic

Active (in present tense): Tammy was enjoying the picnic

The third sentence isn't correct because change in tenses has changed the meaning. The original sentence is talking about Tammy in the past tense "the picnic was enjoyed by Tammy", which is why, to make the sentence active, we use "Tammy enjoyed the picnic". If we say "Tammy was enjoying the picnic" this places the sentence into present tense, which means that Tammy is currently enjoying the picnic.

Passive (present tense): The house was being cleaned by me

Active (still present tense): I was cleaning the house

Active (but in past tense): I cleaned the house

Active (but in future tense): I will clean the house

When should I use passive voice?

A passive voice can work well in situations where:

  • the "doer" of the action is unclear

  • when you want to emphasise the action of the sentence, not the subject

Passive: The votes have been cast.

In this sentence, the "doer" of the action is not needed.

Passive: The suspect was questioned by the FBI.

Active: The FBI questioned the suspect.

Here, we may want to emphasise the suspect, not the FBI. This works better in mystery, crime or suspense novels.

Passive: The high jump record was broken by John Smith.

Active: John Smith broke the high jump record.

In this sentence, John Smith (the subject) is less important than the high jump record (the object), thus, we highlight the high jump record (and draw people's attention to the sentence) by putting it first.

QOTD: In most cases, use active voice in preference to passive voice. Which one do you use the most?