Avoid Passive Sentences for More Engaging Stories
If you’re a serious novelist, then you’ve likely heard the maxim, “Write active sentences and avoid the passive.” It’s a popular recommendation from editors for one simple reason: It’s true.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of passive sentences:
The dolphins were watched by the kids in the stands.
The house was painted and let to dry by the newlyweds.
The ball was hit by Joe into left field in his last at-bat.
From a grammatical standpoint, these sentences are okay. Yet from a reader’s standpoint, they’re weak. When it comes to crafting stories, weaker sentences equate to less engaging writing, and that means disengaged readers who will be more apt to put a novel down if they run into enough snags like these.
To see the weakness of each of the examples above, now take a look at the sentences revised in the active voice:
The kids in the stands watched the dolphins.
The newlyweds painted the house and let it dry.
In his last at-bat, Joe walloped the ball into left field.
When you compare the rewritten active sentences to their passive counterparts, you get a good sense of just how much more powerful the active voice is to a reader. It’s simpler, clearer, and delivers a more striking mental image (especially when you also look for stronger verbs to use, as in the last rewritten example).
It’s a nuance, I know, and some authors may accuse editors of nitpicking about a subtle danger like this. But go spend about ten minutes on Amazon.com or any online bookseller, and you’ll see that readers have plenty of choices when it comes to reading material. What’s going to separate your story from the pack and get people talking about how engaging your novel is?
Taking care of little things like eliminating the passive voice can go a long way to hooking readers and then keeping them engrossed in your story—helping them become mentally active participants in your tale rather than passive passengers just along for another ho-hum ride.
JOHN DAVID KUDRICK copy edits Christian fiction, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, and contemporary fiction novels.