Passive voice

It’s the bane of many writers. We tell rather than show. Editors hate it, of course, and will use its mere presence, even in brief, as their automatic out. This week, I’m working to revise a battle scene in my most recent novel. It’s an eleven-page series that my agent thinks is too passive. I tell what happens to the kids. I don’t show them doing much of anything. If I have any excuse at all, it’s that I cringed at putting these characters in danger. I did not want to dwell on it too much. I wanted to merely observe from a distance, with my hands over my face and only one eye peeking out. Well, you can’t write that way.

Passivity in its best form. Ghandi was active in his pursuit of passive resistance.

Passivity in its best form. Ghandi was active in his pursuit of passive resistance.

I’ve been thinking about passivity in another way too. I have recently waged a battle that some would say I lost. (I simply walked away.) The fact was, I didn’t want to be fighting in the first place. I mistakenly believed that fighting on the right, ethical, true side of things would bring me an automatic win. But it turns out that the side of bad, unethical, and lies, uses all their underhanded methods to achieve their aims, and this is especially true when those who are watching the whole thing take place, are passive. Passivity is lazy. You want something to happen, but you want someone else to take care of it. It’s apathetic. You see, but don’t think you can do anything about it. It’s wrong. It helps the bad guys win.

Yesterday everyone was changing their profile pictures to red to support marriage equality on Facebook. Me too. I did it. But what does that really mean? Does that make us less passive about equality because it took two clicks to change a picture? Not really. I’m watching this one on the sidelines. I changed my picture, but did nothing else. If I really want this to change, I’m going to have to get off my ass.

The thing about being passive, in life and in literature is this: you get what you work for.

If I write a passive scene because I’m too afraid or lazy to get down and dirty, the reader won’t either.

If I am passive about a cause and right does not prevail, it’s my own fault for not doing something about it. There are people who are out there, doing things, protesting. But they need support. Based on what I just experienced, I know. There is a lot of pressure and strain in fighting, but it’s so much more difficult when you’re fighting alone for people who are sitting around waiting for you to get it done already. It’s enough to make a person stop and ask “why am I doing this?” And then with no champions leading the charge, what happens next is this: the bad guys win. And it’s your own damn fault.

7 thoughts on “Passive voice

  1. injaynesworld says:

    I’m actually a little battle-weary at this stage of my life, having been on the front lines of so many battles, mostly environmental, to preserve the rural nature of the little valley where I live. But I can point proudly to a boulevard of pine trees that I had a hand in saving and that’s where the “show” comes in. My writing background comes from screenwriting where you have no choice but to show so that’s how I was trained. I’m learning to apply that to fiction now by using the same method of visualizing the scene in all its sensory completeness and then writing from the experience of being inside of it. A thought-provoking post, Tracey. Keep on fighting the good fight.

  2. debatterman says:

    There are times when I think the passive voice — used deliberately — can serve the purposes of the narrative. A good writer knows when it’s lazy and when it’s appropriate. Passivity about things in the real world gnaws at me in a different way, though not all that different from your experience of it.

  3. Tracey says:

    There’s a little bit of that Catholic guilt in me that always creates a twinge when I haven’t done all I can, but there is only so much we can do, and there are so many causes, so little time.

    I agree that passive voice can be put to good use. Sadly, not in a fight scene, as I recently discovered.

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