WRITING: Active Voice, Not Passive Voice

Having come across this screenwriting issue a few times with relatively experienced writers at my level recently, I thought it might be appropriate to take this rant of mine and share it publicly. Always active voice, not passive voice.

I’m not the first to say it. In fact, my wording here will probably be heavily influenced by Xander Bennett, since his is the latest screenwriting book I read. When you get to the ‘writing’ part of any of these books, this is pretty much the first widsom such teachers impart, because such a simple rule can have such a huge difference on your script’s readability. Passive voice slows down the read and can make your descriptions less clear, which is why they also read as unprofessional immediately to anyone in the industry.

How do you write in an active voice rather than a passive voice?

Don’t:

  • write ‘he/she is VERBing’
  • write ‘they are VERBing’
  • use adverbs (he VERBS ADVERBly)
These are necessary evils sometimes, but they are rarely worth the effects of slowing down your script and tossing in extra syllables. Preferred format is:
  • he/she VERBs
  • they VERB
  • he/she/they VERB, ADJECTIVE*
* This one might not be wide spread, but I’ve found it’s my best way to combat the evils of adverbs. Usually it reads just fine.

Just keep it in mind when you’re writing. It will put you ahead of a lot of writers out there who don’t know better.

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6 responses to “WRITING: Active Voice, Not Passive Voice

  1. Kara Lalalala March 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Do you think thats true for story/novel writing as well?

    • R. Lackie March 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm

      Well… I find active voice to be a much more confident, enjoyable form to read, but it’s less strict for story/novel work. They can stretch their tones and styles (and voice!) a bit more, depending on their narrator and author’s voice.

      Scripts are in that weird place where they are both a story AND a blue print for a production, so active voice is the clearest way to write a script. That said, I’m betting using it for prose would help some authors be more concise, and make their work more enjoyable to read…

  2. schillingklaus April 4, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    I love passive voice; ergo, none of your censorship will deter me from deploying it deliberately and religiously.

    • R. Lackie April 4, 2015 at 8:26 pm

      Do whatever makes you happy. 🙂 I was mostly (IIRC) speaking specifically about screenwriting, where passive voice is a huge error in judgement professionally. But if you’re writing deliberately and with care, your creative choices are all your own to worry about, and I wish you the best.

      • Big Ben April 26, 2015 at 2:52 am

        This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a screenwriter refer to the
        ‘he/she is VERBing’ and ‘they are VERBing’ as passive voices. When did screenwriters start calling present active participles “passive voice.” It is anything but in proper grammar and literature. Screenwriting should be subject to the same laws as the aforementioned.

        Proper grammar example of present active participle or ‘active voice’: “You might be using the phrase ‘passive voice’ incorrectly.”

        Proper grammar example of present passive participle or ‘passive voice’: “The phrase ‘passive voice’ is possibly being misrepresented by your description above.”

        Please explain.

        Please also read The Academy of Film Writing on active/passive voice:
        http://www.theafw.com/blog/active-voice-vs-passive-voice/#.

        • R. Lackie April 26, 2015 at 10:22 am

          Seems like a fair criticism, in that I may have gotten the exact grammatical name for that structure incorrect.

          I stand by my recommendation as a screenwriter that the ‘he/she is VERBing’ structure is awkward in screenplay format, and is only effective for screenplays in a handful of situations. If you don’t share that opinion, you’re welcome not to, but that’s not an argument I’m terribly interested in wasting time on, particularly with a stranger over the Internet.

          Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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