Friday, March 22, 2013

Passive Voice: Is It Ever Okay to Use in Novel Writing?

(I know this is my third post on passive voice, and I promise it's my last one. It's just that the passive/active argument is one of my pet peeves.)

From a very early point in our writing journey, writers are told that under no circumstances are they to use the passive voice. It's one of the writing "rules" to which we find ourselves bound.

As a writer continues on their path, they discover that many writing rules are made to be broken, especially if they can be broken well. But for some reason, this one, this passive voice rule, is one that writers cling to, even when it doesn't make sense.

Let's be clear about something. Passive voice serves a purpose. Yes, passive voice can distance the reader from the text, but sometimes that's what you want. Passive voice can also serve another purpose: it can put the focus on the object instead of the subject.

What do I mean by that? Well, let's look at something I've written, something that in my opinion is a completely valid use of passive voice: the first line of my query:

"Chris is doomed to life as a Norm."

That my friends is most definitely passive voice. I mean just do the "by zombies test."

Chris is doomed by zombies.  

Yep. Passive. 

Now if Chris is actually doomed by zombies, I would agree that the sentence should totally be revamped to  "Zombies doomed Chris." But the thing is, zombies didn't doom Chris. 

What doomed him? Genetics, Fate, God, chance, destiny, or maybe the universe. (Ok, ultimately it was me. Since I created him, but you definitely can't put that in a query.) Chris doesn't particularly believe in God or fate so it wouldn't make sense to say "God doomed Chris" or "Fate doomed Chris." And who wants to start their query "Genetics doomed Chris to a life as a Norm." 

The crux of the matter here is that a kid name Chris feels like he's doomed. It doesn't matter what doomed him, because what is important here is Chris. He's the object and he is the most important part of that sentence. Who cares what did the dooming?

Chris is doomed. 


Think about that. "Doomed" is a really strong word. In that one word I completely summarize everything Chris feels about his Norm status. And yes it's passive, but you know what? That's ok. 

Because nothing Chris did made him a Norm. He was born a Norm. He didn't ask for it. He didn't want it. He just is. He didn't doom himself. Nothing doomed him other than genetics. He just is doomed. 

Chris is doomed.

I think that's a strong statement, even if it is passive. 

So yes, in general you should avoid using the passive voice, but like any good writing rule, there are definitely times when it can be and should be broken.

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