Like the name suggests, this prose is passive, the literary equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Let's take a look at what it is, and how to reduce our reliance on it.
The Passive Voice
By definition, passive voice occurs when the noun of a sentence that is being acted upon, becomes the subject of it.
Example: The building was destroyed.
Here, the it is the building that is being acted upon since it was destroyed by something. However, the way the sentence is written, we have no idea what caused the destruction. We've made the object being destroyed into the subject of the sentence. In other words, by saying "The building was destroyed" we are stating a fact. That is, we are telling the reader what happened, not showing the reader what happened.
A better way to show that the building was destroyed is to make the object of destruction the object again. We need a new subject for this sentence. Perhaps a bomb (subject) destroyed the building (object). Or spaceship (subject) blew up the building (object). And if we don't want to give away just yet who did it, we can write "An explosion destroyed the building", which is clearly just as effective. By adding that subject in the sentence, we instantly improve our writing by moving away from the passive voice and toward the active voice.
When To Use The Passive Voice
There are times when it makes sense to use the passive voice. Here's a hint: it's not when you're writing an action scene. Instead, we can use the passive voice for dramatic effect. In other words, when we're writing passively by intention, then it can be quite effective as long as we don't overdo it.
One of the more famous passages is Charles Dickens' introduction to A Tale of Two Cities.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." and so on. By any definition, this is telling the reader, not showing. This has the passive voice all over it. And yet, in this context, along with all the other "It was" sentences he uses, a dramatic impression is left with the reader because he writes this intentionally.
But can you imagine how boring a fight between Captain Kirk and Darth Vader would be if it was filled with lines like:
- The phasor cut into Vader's cloak.
- A lightsaber fell to the ground
- A rock was thrown across the starship.
So if you're not thrilled with your writing, especially your action scenes, take a look to see if you've been using the passive voice unintentionally and, if you have, make the necessary change to the active voice and watch your prose come alive.
Have you ever tried to write a novel only to find yourself getting frustrated and giving up after a few thousand words? Perhaps you've done some plotting and worked out characters, but can't quite bring yourself to ever finishing the thing?
Writing a novel is a huge project, a massive undertaking, that is always much harder to accomplish than we ever think. One of the reasons for this is the North American myth propagated by television... you know the one, where the writer sits down at her laptop one evening, opens the screen, types out "Chapter One" and within a day or two she has a full novel manuscript ready to become a best-seller.
Alas, the craft of writing, especially writing a novel, doesn't work that way. It is a lot of thinking, of practicing, of trying new things, of failing, of revising, editing, deleting, starting over, plotting and so on.
But if you're willing spend one or two hours per day for 90 days, I can show you how to write the first draft of an awesome page-turning novel. Here's how.
1. Plot your story from start to finish before ever writing
There are plotters and there are writers who write by the seat of their pants, without a guide or outline or anything. Very few can actually write that way. Most of us need to plot. So the most successful way I know of writing a story is to plot it out scene by scene, section by section. For example, in my Write Your First NOvel Now course, we use a plotting tool based on the Hero's Journey to map out an entire story before we ever start writing. And it works. Every time.
2. Write every day, no exceptions
Consistency is more important than time spent writing. If you only have an hour a day to write, make sure you honour that. Adjust your schedule for the next 3 months so you can get your writing in. At first, it will be difficult, but within a week or two, you'll be writing up a storm, getting into the flow of the craft, and generating amazing prose.
3. Don't stop to edit or revise... just keep writing
This is an important point because far too many of us start editing and revising each page we write. It's a sure fire way to get bogged down and to convince yourself that you're a bad person for thinking you could write, shame, shame, tut tut.
So the key here is to keep writing. This is your first draft, remember, so it's going to have inconsistencies and problems with sentence structure and such. That's okay. Tell that voice in your head - you know, the one that says, "You should use a semi-colon instead of a colon there!" - to relax. There will be time to edit and revise AFTER the first draft is done.
4. Embrace the process
The most difficult part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. It's not how great your characters are, or how well you plot, or anything else like that. If you can't get the story out of your head and on the paper, all those other things don't matter.
So for the next 90 days, embrace the process. Give yourself 2 weeks or so to plot out your story from start to finish (write me if you'd like a novel planning template), then jump right in! Remember, you won't be doing this for the rest of your life, just the next 90 days. You can do this!
By following those four tips above, you'll be writing a novel of 60,000 - 75,000 words in about 3 months. Yes, it's possible to do... I see it all the time in my novel writing workshops. And yes, there will be more work to do after, like editing and revising. But you'll get it done, which is more than most people can say who want to write a novel.
Feel free to comment on this article and share your own experiences with the process! And, if you liked this, please share it with your friends on social media.
If you'd like more info on how I use this process in my workshops, check out these current offerings.