Stephen King, in his book On Writing, gives almost the best definition of passive voice I’ve read.
- “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 the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.” (King, Stephen. On Writing by Stephen King. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Shribner, 2000. Page 122.)
King was referring to another good writing resource, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, which discusses passive voice in Rule 14, entitled “Use active voice.” I highly recommend both books for anyone who wants to make writing a career, and I agree 100 percent with these fellows regarding passive voice. I actually include the rule: Eliminate Passive Voice in my writing workshop called “The Three Rules of Great Writing.”
Why publishers, agents, and editors have this rule: Passive voice slows down a story, and it uses useless words. My accounting textbook in college was written almost entirely in passive voice, and I fell asleep every time I read it. This is not an exaggeration. You'll find quite a few makeup stains and drool marks throughout its pages.
J. K. Rowling breaks this rule with a few passive voice sentences just in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
- “…there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that…”
- “There was a tabby cat standing on the corner of Privit Drive, but there wasn’t a map in site.”
- “But on the edge of town, drills were driven out of this mind by something else.”
- “…there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about.”
- “In fact, it was nearly midnight before the cat moved at all.”
She’s not the only one author who has dared to use passive voice in a story. John Grisham fills The Client with passive voice sentences. (Granted, he started out as a lawyer, and I suspect “Passive Voice As a Second Language 101” is a requirement for all law students before taking “Legal-ese and Loopholes 201.”)
Why breaking this rule worked:As we writers often slave away at making our prose perfect, our dialog dynamic, and our clichés chic, we sometimes forget 3 important axioms to the Writing Rules:
- The reader does not know the Writing Rules.
- The reader does not care about said Writing Rules.
- The reader just wants to read a good story.
J. K. Rowling delivers a not only a good story, but also a phenomenal epic. She might use a few there’s and by’s, but who cares? No one notices because her story captivates immediately. (That, and she’s witty. Her entire first chapter makes you giggle with delight.)
What this tells us about the craft of writing: Story trumps your Language Arts teacher’s grammar and style rules. (Actually, story trumps everything.) Writers succeed or fail with readers on the basis of their stories—not on their knowledge of Elements of Style. (That being said, publishers, editors, and agents do care about grammar and style, so don’t get lazy.) Style and grammar are the icing on your cake, and icing without a cake is just a big, gooey mess.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog on how to break the “Eliminate useless Adjectives” rule.
This post is part of a mini-series of posts. Click below to read previous posts in the series.
- On Writing: How to Break the Rules & Get Away With It!
- On Writing: How to Break the "Kill the Narrator Rule" & Get Away With It!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.
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