Sunday, June 22, 2014

Passive Voice and the Novelist’s Voice

Novel readers don’t ask for much: A powerful plot. Compelling characters. A voice you could listen to forever.

What don’t novel readers ask for? A novel where there is a plot based on decisions that should be made by characters who are being described by a narrator resulting in a voice that is passive. There is (good construction to avoid) no justification for that!

Novelists rarely incite that much irritation. But the sentence does illustrate the connection between passive voice—and no voice. In “The Pleasures and Perils of the Passive,” Constance Hale identifies both kinds of voice: “Most (though not all) verbs have a property known as ‘voice,’ which can be either active or passive. The voice of a verb is different from both the common notion of voice (the timbre produced by a person’s vocal cords) and the literary notion (the ineffable way the writer’s words work on the page).”

Stephen King delivers this warning in “Why and How to Avoid Passive Voice”:  “You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in ‘The Elements of Style’.  Messrs. Strunk and White don't speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I'm willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

Safe or not, the passive voice is wordy, cumbersome, and unintentionally comic: “The ball was hit by the girl.” Will that release your voice? Seriously?

To find your voice, you must first counteract insecurity and self-consciousness, then enchant through syntax, music, diction, rhythm, figurative language, and on and on. Why add an awkward, usually displeasing construction that makes all that harder?  Because exceptions exist (though preferably not expressed as “There are exceptions”).

~ Would a sentence become unclear or ungainly if you traded subject for object?

The Emperor was attacked by an enraged people, starving and humiliated, whom he’d recently enslaved in a victory that generated, song, poem, statue and—revolution.

~ Do you intentionally seek distance? Ambiguity? A certain tone or rhythm?

There are truths few humans can endure, truths awaiting someone to voice them.

How to choose when to give in and use passive voice?

Tip: Imagine that each passive sentence costs $50,000. Then spend your cash wisely.

After all, W.H. Auden proclaimed, “All I have is a voice.” And that’s all anyone has.

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