Active vs. Passive Voice: A Matter of Agency

View from the back doorTime and time again, speakers and writers of English find themselves thinking of sentences in terms of actions and actors. Typically, we prefer to organize our sentences so that the sentence’s main actor is identified in the subject. This organization, known as the active voice, is widely preferred by writers for its clarity and its compact structure.

Fiction writers have an additional reason to prefer the active voice. In a work of fiction, your characters will almost always be the actors in your sentences. Your characters are also your main device for getting your readers connected with your story. By using the active voice, with its emphasis on the actor, you keep your writing focused on your characters and give yourself the most opportunity to connect with your audience.

However, there is a time and a place for the passive voice in fiction. When we use the passive voice, the object of the sentence’s action is used as the subject of the sentence. The actor is sometimes mentioned afterward, and it is frequently not mentioned at all. This construction can yield weak and awkward sentences, but it is very useful when we want to call the reader’s attention to the object of an action. When we describe a vase that has been shattered, a door that has been kicked in, or a body that has been dragged into the woods, we want the reader to be struck by the dramatic image. Some ambiguity about the actor of the sentence is acceptable in these instances, and it can even be necessary to build the suspense in a scene.

Usually, we want to help our readers closely follow along with our actors as they go through our story. Because the active voice is a far superior tool for this job, it’s generally thought of as a superior sentence construction. However, don’t discount the possibility that the passive voice may be more appropriate for some of your sentences.