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.