Don't forget to enter our really bad pov contest! Deadline tomorrow, details on the sidebar. If you're on a feed reader, go here to see the sidebar.
Last month, we looked at how to load description into a sentence for impact. In doing so, we reviewed the three main parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and object. This month, we’ll examine passive voice, which is a useful -- but dangerous -- way of obscuring the true subject of a sentence.
Let’s start with a quick review of the three parts of a sentence. Here’s our sample sentence from last month:
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object
It’s a simple sentence in active voice. A simple sentence is one with one subject, one predicate, and no subordinate clauses. Sometimes sentences -- or parts of a sentence, such as the verb -- are compound. Here’s an example of a compound sentence (two independent clauses joined by a conjunction):
The dog ... barked ... and ... the intruder ... jumped.
subject ... verb ... conjunction ... subject ... verb
Keep this in mind for later.
Has anyone ever told you to avoid passive voice? There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about what passive voice is and what it can accomplish.
Here’s a terrible but accurate definition: passive voice removes the true subject from a sentence, and replaces it with the true object so that the true object is the subject within the sentence structure. With a definition like this, it’s no wonder that there is so much confusion!
It’s much easier to understand by looking at an example.
The dog ... barked ... at the intruder.
subject ... verb ... predicative object.
The intruder ... was barked at.
subject (true object) ... verb
The dog -- the actor in the sentence, the one actually doing the barking -- has fallen out of the sentence and is only implied. The true object of the sentence, the intruder, functions like the subject.
Sometimes writers try to “fix” passive constructions by attaching the subject in the place where the object is usually found. As in:
The intruder ... was barked at ... by the dog.
subject (true object) ... verb ... object (true subject)
But the better fix is to put the sentence in active voice, letting the actor (the dog) be the subject and take the action, instead of being the object and receiving the action.
There will be times that you actually want to remove the subject from the sentence. For example, you may want to hide the identity of the subject, or it may be impossible to know the subject’s identity. Let’s say the point of view character is alone in a house and you want to heighten the tension. Passive voice might be appropriate. Here’s an example:
The doorknob ... was jiggled.
object ... verb
The pov character doesn’t know who is making the doorknob jiggle, so the subject is removed and the passive voice is appropriate. Hiding the subject creates tension. Who is jiggling the doorknob? The reader must turn the page to find out.
The problem with passive voice comes when the identity of the subject must be disclosed in order for the sentence to make sense. Remember our compound sentence?
The dog barked and the intruder jumped.
What happens when we put it in passive voice?
The intruder was barked at and jumped.
Sentences like this can slip into even the most lucid prose. The intruder looks like the functional subject, with a compound verb. But only one of the actions (the jumping) is being taken by the intruder. The other action (the barking) is being taken by a dropped subject. The result is confusing, even though there are only seven words in the sentence.
If your sentence feels tangled and you suspect that passive voice might be the problem, here is the fix:
1. Identify the verb. In the sentence, “A home run was scored by Sally,” the verb is “was scored.”
2. Next, identify who is taking the action of the verb. In the sample sentence, the action of the verb is scoring, and Sally is the one doing the scoring, so the actor is “Sally.”
3. Next, identify the structural subject of the sentence. In the sample sentence, the subject is “home run.”
4. If the actor is not the subject, you’ve got passive voice. Put the actor back in charge of the action by untwisting the parts of speech, and you’ll eliminate the passive voice: “Sally scored a home run.”
If this four-step fix doesn’t seem to apply to your tangled sentence, then passive voice might not be the problem. There may be something else clouding the meaning. Next month, we’ll look at other confusing types of passive construction that might be the culprit, including the dreaded “that” construction.
This is the sixth in the Redlines series.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.