“He was attacked by a dog” is a weak sentence. It doesn’t have any balls! What do I mean by balls? I mean it doesn’t have an ounce of courage. It doesn’t exude bravery or have the testicular fortitude to carry the weight of what’s happening. It’s passive, and passive writing is weak writing!
Maybe that sentence doesn’t have much weight to begin with, though. Perhaps the reader doesn’t care if “He was attacked by the dog” or if “The dog attacked him.” Let’s up the ante a little then. “John was stabbed by his scorned lover.” WEAK!
Why is passive voice so weak here? Why does it matter if John was stabbed or if the scorned lover stabbed John? Simple: you just turned your protagonist into a victim and made the scorned lover a side piece (probably why she’s scorned in the first place) instead of the one in control of the situation. I’m going to kick it up one more notch so you can fully grasp what I mean.
“Batman was shot in the chest by the Joker. Even though he wore armor, Batman was dropped to his knees by the power of the bullet.” You see, other than sounding bad, these sentences portray Batman as the victim of another person, and even the victim of the bullet. Batman is a damn hero! This makes him look weak and doesn’t best portray the viciousness of the Joker.
Even though Batman is technically the victim in this scene, the action shouldn’t just be happening to him. You should put the power in the Joker’s hands and show him in control. This doesn’t take away from the heroic nature of Batman, it highlights the wickedness of the Joker. Try this on instead: “The Joker shot Batman in the chest. Even though he wore armor, the power of the bullet dropped Batman to his knees.”
See, this gives the Joker the power. It doesn’t make him sound like an abstract thing that results in problems; it makes HIM the problem. You want to make the person or thing creating the action the focal point. You wouldn’t say “The ball was thrown by the girl.” That significantly waters down the role of the girl. You would say “The girl threw the ball.” That’s active voice. That puts her in control of the moment, which is what you want. It’s strong writing.
I can go on all day about why passive voice sucks, but that would make this article longer than a Quick Tips piece. I will say, there are times when passive voice might be useful. Maybe you do want to show a certain character as weak or a victim. Maybe you only use passive voice for that one particular character in order to manipulate the reader’s view of them. Or you might want to hide the subject of the sentence for a later surprise, such as “The Joker was thrown from the building.” Who threw the Joker from the building? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
Either way, it’s almost always best to stick with active voice. It makes for a better reading experience and gives your writing the weight it needs. It gives it balls! I’ll leave you with a video to further explain passive voice. And until next time, keep on writing!
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