A good grammar book will tell you what ‘passive voice’ is much better than I, but I’ll give it a go. Briefly, it’s when the subject is having something done to it (passive), rather than doing something (active). So what? I hear you ask. Well, in order to gain maximum reader engagement, you need maximum reader involvement. The more action, the more your reader is ‘living’ your story, making it irresistable.
Passive voice describes things in a way that leaves the reader standing outside the story looking in, aware they are watching a scene unfold before them rather than losing themselves in it. At first, I didn’t think this would make that much difference to me as a reader, but in reading through my own work after I’d put it away for a while, I really noticed the shift in my reading consciousness and level of engagement with the story.
So when I’m rewriting, passive construction is one of the first things I look out for. I don’t look at every sentence and ask myself if there’s an active subject in it. While I might have been OK at English at school, I mostly do things by feel. If it feels right, then it is right. I’m lucky enough not to have too much of a problem with grammar – cheers to my primary school education, despite moving schools mid way through my primary years!
I look out for any form of the word ‘be’, including ‘was’ and ‘is’. If it’s with the past participle of a verb, it’s passive voice, but I don’t spend time trying to work that out. When I spot the ‘be’ words, I just try and find another way of writing the sentence. And do you know, I get the most amazing work at the end of it? More action, more excitement, more plot.
Which is kind of ironic, considering all those self-help books I read tell me to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’.