Phillip made his tortured way into the teeth of the storm. Tossed like a rag-doll by the wind, he was thrown to the ground more than once, and forced to seek refuge behind the barn. His will had now been cemented in place by the ravages Mother Nature had thrown at him.
The preceding paragraph will rub some of you the wrong way, since it is–aside from the opening sentence–written in passive voice, or what my English teacher in high school droned at length about and called the ‘soft edged, weak choices of a lazy writer’.
I have since become a professional writer, novelist, and contributing editor for several journals, and have a different view of this sample. It may be true that it could have been written using “active” verbs and constructs, but this would have reduced the intended flavor of the piece and shifted the focus away from the main character.
What do I mean by that? Let me explain.
When I am reading, and often when I am writing, I rapidly stop seeing the words on the paper. An ‘activation’ occurs in my mind, and the story becomes what I call a mind-movie. This means I see the author’s written world through camera angles. The active vs. passive voice choice is one which can be used to show me where the camera is focused.
“I was knocked out” is about me, while “He knocked me out” is about him, or at least can be construed this way, leading to the dreaded stopping of the movie while the reader decides we are still looking at me. This reversion to words-on-paper is, in my opinion, the worst mistake a writer can make. Our primary job, especially if we are novelists, is to create that mind-movie and allow our readers to become immersed in the world we have created.
If you read words, or sentences, or even paragraphs on a page, then yes, these writing choices may grate on your nerves–especially the ones that were drilled into you at an early age by well-meaning, but misguided authority figures. When the movie is rolling however, these constructs can keep the visual where it belongs, on the victim.
After all, sometimes bad things DO happen TO good characters.
Life is not always about seeing everything as an active movement. Quite often we are at the mercy of outside forces which we are the unwilling recipients of. The question is, do we want to see an external force that is working against your character, or do we want to watch your character being acted on. Only your story-telling style and the moment in the mind-movie can decide that… not an arbitrary rule.
Even if “by zombies” is rather a cool way of deciding which voice you are using.
Dusty Grein is Creative Director and a contributing editor for Rhetoric Askew. He is also a novelist, poet and regular writer for the Society of Classical Poets website. Some of his messages can also be found on his blog, From Grandpa’s Heart…