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Writing Skills

Active Voice vs Passive Voice: Definition and Examples

Krystle Appiah. Former editor at Macmillan
Krystle Appiah
May 12, 2024
May 12, 2024

How do you use the active and passive voice? When it comes to writing a novel, few things will bring it to life as much as voice.

We’ve all heard the age-old adage on how important it is to ‘find your voice.’ As writers, it’s our job to do just that and to spend time discovering and developing it, then using it to craft a novel. We’re able to recognize the voices of our favorite authors and hear what sets apart Tolkien from Gaiman, Deonn from Shusterman, Kuang from Jemisin.

But what is voice? And does it need to be active?

In this article, The Novelry editor and award-winning author Krystle Appiah—who previously worked as an editor at Macmillan, and whose first novel Rootless won the NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work: Debut Author—explores how to make your prose sing using active voice versus passive voice, including definitions and examples to really bring your novel to life.

What do we mean by a writer’s voice?

Frustratingly, voice isn’t just one thing. It’s the combination of a writer’s individual style, syntax, vocabulary, tone, perspective and rhythm. 

Voice is how you communicate the story. 

Some writers are lyrical in style and use lots of eloquent and complex syntax. Others take a bare-bones approach and use short, no-frills sentences that make their tone abrupt and rhythm staccato. If you’re musically inclined it might help to think of a buzzer beeping on 1, 3 and 5. It’s straight to the point with little to no flourishes or irrelevant detail.

Now, compare that to writers who use long drawn-out sentences, filled with metaphors and heavy on the descriptions and allusions. If they were to write music, small sections might go on for eight counts or 16. Maybe there’d be an eight-minute solo in the middle of a bigger piece. 

As someone who is the furthest thing from a seasoned musician, that example could completely fall apart, but hopefully, you can see the point I’m trying to make. Just as novels are unique, so is voice. 

One often-overlooked aspect of voice that massively impacts how readers experience your story is writing in the active and passive voice. These two voices can have a huge impact on how a reader feels about your novel.

The difference between active and passive voice

To dig more into this, we need to become students for a moment and remind ourselves of the basics of sentence structure.

In its simplest form, a sentence is made up of three parts: a subject, an object and a main verb. In a sentence like the example below it’s pretty easy to identify. 

The subject is the person, place or thing. Most commonly, this is where we’d find a noun or pronoun. In a novel, this will likely be a character. The main verb is where the action happens. It might be a literal action, like a character running, driving or jumping; a mental action, like a character thinking or ruminating; or an ongoing action, like a character who is sitting or waiting. In the active voice, the subject performs an action.

The sentence above is written in the active voice. The subject is doing the main verb, taking charge if you will. But the order of the words does matter. With a slight change and reordering, we can see the same information communicated in the passive voice. 

Can you see the difference now we have the same sentence in the passive voice? It isn’t just that the words have changed order. The passive voice sentence written above is a little more complicated because the verb is now in the past tense. Also, the road and the chicken have swapped. In the second sentence, the subject still needs to come first, so the road has become the subject and the chicken is its object. 

Quick tip: words like ‘by,’ ‘had been,’ ‘had had,’ ‘was’ and ‘were’ are often a sign that you’re writing in the passive voice.

It comes down to what you’d like to emphasize. What do you want your reader to focus on? The road or the chicken?

Why the active voice is more exciting

When writing in the active voice, sentences tend to be focused on making the meaning clear. They’re more direct and have fewer words than those written in the passive voice.

The active voice is great at helping put readers in your main character’s shoes. It’s also easier for you, the writer, to get across agency and interiority in the active voice, as your character is normally doing something to drive the story forward and create change. Whereas the passive voice tends to feel more detached and creates distance. The meaning can get lost and you can lose the reader’s focus. To the ear, the passive voice sounds clunky and can be hard to follow.

As an editor, I’m always searching for the central thread or the beating heart of the story—the question everything comes back to. For me, a story falls apart without it, so clarity is key. The active voice lends itself to this. In the passive voice, sentences can get very wordy and confusing. And when there are too many distractions to wade through and too many tangents to walk, it could be a sign the central thread is getting lost. 

As readers, we’ve all read pages and pages and pages that are essentially a collection of actions and dialogue that have no link back to the main story. We’ve read repetitive 500-word paragraphs knowing twenty words would do. Most of us have sat in meetings, willing time to move faster, because that meeting should’ve been an email.

This is where most writers, editors and schoolteachers would say, ‘Write in the active voice.’ But that would be a blanket answer that automatically labels one voice as better than the other. And don’t get me wrong, many people have said just that. 

In Stephen King’s On Writing he makes it clear that prose in the passive voice is one of his ‘pet peeves.’ He states that:

‘Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of a sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.’
—Stephen King, On Writing

The majority of the time—and for most writers—this would be sound advice, but I don’t hate the passive voice sentence quite as much as Stephen King. There is space for a little more nuance here.

When might the passive voice be useful?

Normally, the passive voice moves the focus away from the subject or is used when the subject is unknown. We see it in scientific writing and the news. An example of this is below.

Three assailants stole a car and drove it into a lake.

Another example could be:

The car was stolen and found in the lake.

In this instance, it’s useful as a way to avoid admitting guilt or responsibility. The passive voice removes all the assailants. Similarly, if I say the cupboard is broken, I can tell you the vital information without admitting that I broke the cupboard. Do you see how that adds an air of mystery and removes culpability? After I say that, you might be wondering who is the mysterious person who broke the cupboard, or if there was some fault in its mechanics. Where the active voice gives us lots of information, the passive voice leaves a lot of unknowns. 

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet uses both the active and passive voice. An example is below.

‘Three heavy knocks on the door of the apartment: boom, boom, boom. Hamnet is closest so he goes to answer it. As it swings open, he cringes and yelps: on the doorstep is a terrifying sight, a creature from a nightmare, from Hell, from the devil. It is tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, painted like the beak of a gigantic bird. “No,” Hamnet cries, “get away.” He tries to shut the door but the creature puts a hand out and presses it back, with horrible preternatural strength.’
—Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet

Do you see how she switches between the active voice and passive voice to draw attention to the ominous knock, the strange, terrifying creature at the door and Hamnet in turn? If she’d opted to write the entire piece in the active voice, beginning with ‘A creature from a nightmare, from Hell, knocked on the door’ we wouldn’t have the tense, dramatic moments in the text where she builds up the image of the creature in our minds. She’d also need to show us both sides of the scene at once with the creature knocking and Hamnet getting up to open the door. And most importantly, it would move the focus away from Hamnet, the novel’s main character. 

Similarly, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere uses the passive voice frequently to reflect on events that have already happened.  

‘The second time Pearl had come over, Moody had left her in the sunroom and gone to get drinks, and Pearl, instead of sitting down, had turned in a slow circle, as if she were in Oz instead of the Richardsons’ house. Lexie, who had been coming down the hall with the latest Cosmo and a Diet Coke, had stopped outside the doorway, just out of view, and watched her.’
—Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

In this scene, we reflect on Pearl’s early days with the Richardson family. We see how she marvels at their home and how quickly all the lives of these characters become entangled. 

As with most aspects of voice, writing in the passive voice or the active voice is an issue of style. But as students of craft, it’s worth having an idea of why the passive voice can be tricky to write well and the impact it has.

This advice from author and The Novelry writing coach Heather Webb is spot on: ‘Passive voice makes the story feel as if it’s meandering, softer and unfocused, and easily lost in details that don’t stand out, whereas active voice and using vibrant action verbs not only brings the details into sharp focus, it propels the story forward like a motor, taking the reader on a ride along with them.’

And author and writing coach Alice Kuipers also mentions: ‘The passive voice distances the reader, making them feel further from the action, and making it harder for them to have a visceral experience with the character. With active, we become the characters, as readers, entering the narrative.’

Finding your voice

For most writers, getting a novel down on the page is hard enough, so it’s a good idea to write in the active voice because those sentences tend to be simpler and more direct, but that doesn’t mean they’re stiff and without detail. Simpler and more direct prose means there are fewer chances for you, the writer, to go off on unnecessary tangents and have big chunks of text that aren’t coming back to the central thread of the story. 

Remember that the story is what readers are here for. They have questions about the people they meet and the world you’re creating. They want to know what happens and why it’s relevant. And as Stephen King puts it: ‘The reader must always be your main concern.’

As a writer, it’s up to you.

  • What impact do you want to have?
  • How do you want your readers to feel?
  • What emotion do you want to bring out of them?
  • How will you make active and passive voices work for you?

If you know the rules and have the tools, there is a time and a place when the passive voice works brilliantly, but to be effective as a writer, you need to pick and choose your moments. Every word needs to earn its place. 

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Krystle Appiah. Former editor at Macmillan
Krystle Appiah

Before joining The Novelry, Krystle Appiah was an Editor at Macmillan Children’s Books, home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.

Members of The Novelry team