PASSIVE VOICE —
I get into trouble sometimes with students. I will tell a student something doesn’t work. The student will say, “Gotcha.” I will think all is well —
Till the next time I see the student’s writing and the student will still be doing what I said doesn’t work. And I’ll say, Listen, you really can’t do this. And the student will say, “Gotcha.” Add water. Rinse. Repeat.
This happens with passive voice a lot.
You can’t write scripts in passive voice. [Well you can, but you shouldn’t.] Scripts have to be written in active voice. But I think sometimes when I tell a student he or she cannot use passive voice, there is a disconnect. I’m talking a grammar thing. And the student thinks I am talking a stylistic tonal “writer’s voice” thing. So I will keep saying, You can’t use passive voice. The writer will keep saying, “Gotcha.” And will keep writing in passive voice. I will start feeling all growly, thinking, Wow, this writer really doesn’t listen. And the writer will be getting frustrated, not knowing what in hell I think is wrong with his or her “voice.” And boom, miscommunication follies ensue.
Let’s clear this up right now. Active voice vs. passive voice is a grammar thing.
In most sentences that contain an action verb, the subject leads the sentence and performs the action designated by the verb:
“Bob punches the wall.”
Bob is the subject. Bob leads.
The verb is punch. It comes after the subject, Bob.
The subject, Bob, is performing the action, punch.
Because the subject [Bob] performs the action/verb [punch], the sentence is active.
You can change the word order in active voice sentences by moving the subject to the end of the sentence, but that makes the sentences passive because the subject is passive — the subject is no longer dictating the action, the subject is being dictated to by the action:
“The wall is punched — by Bob.”
Now the subject, Bob, is not leading and taking action, the subject Bob is coming in at the end of the sentence being acted upon by the verb punch — because the subject Bob is coming in at the end of the sentence behind the verb, instead of in front of it.
That’s passive voice.
DOWN & DIRTY EXAMPLES OF ACTIVE VOICE VS. PASSIVE VOICE:
Bob rides the horse. [active] || The horse is ridden by Bob. [passive]
Bob downs a shot of whiskey. [active] || A shot of whiskey is downed by Bob. [passive]
Bob does the laundry. [active] || The laundry is done by Bob. [passive]
What you will see in every active sentence is, the subject leads the sentence and comes before the verb. That’s the rule for active voice sentences. The subject comes before the verb.
DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN SUBJECT & OBJECT:
This active vs. passive voice thing is still going to be confusing for lit major victims who have become enamored of objects in the place of subjects [back away from your Bram Stoker, lit major victims] and will be looking at this cross eyed saying, Well, why can’t the laundry up there be the active subject?
Here’s how you test that.
Is the laundry doing Bob, or is Bob doing the laundry? [I’m sincerely pulling for Bob here, if the laundry is doing Bob, we’re probably in a Roger Corman flick.]
Is the horse riding Bob? Or is Bob riding the horse? [Again, pulling for Bob.]
Is the whiskey drinking Bob? Or is Bob drinking the whiskey? [Bob wins again!]
If the verb belongs to Bob? [And it does in all of the above examples, the laundry isn’t doing Bob, the horse isn’t riding Bob, and the whiskey is not drinking Bob.] Bob is the subject. And in an active voice sentence? That means Bob comes first, before the verb.
WHY THIS MATTERS IN SCREENWRITING:
Screenwriting is telling a story in visual terms and the hope is that a reader [who is your audience until you get that bad boy sold, produced, in the can, and projected onto a screen at your local Cineplex Odeon] is “seeing” the movie as he or she reads. And he or she can’t do that if sentences are passive.
Here’s a sentence to consider:
A boat is being rowed across a moonlit lake beneath a clouded over sky as small waves lap against the boat’s side —
Okay, who’s rowing the boat? Who do you see rowing the boat? No one. It’s an empty boat so far.
You don’t know who is rowing the boat or “see” who is rowing the boat because the sentence is passive voice and the subject has not shown up yet. You’re working your way through a lot of information but the most important part of that sentence, who you see rowing? Is missing. And will remain missing until the writer gets around to telling you who is rowing that boat AKA giving you the subject of that sentence.
Could be a leprechaun. Could be a Girl Scout. Could be Bob.
You just don’t know.
If a writer continually withholds the sentence subject, writing in passive voice, the writer is asking the reader to repeatedly mentally retain information about action without any subject performing that action. But the reader can’t “see” what’s happening until the subject does show up. So has to save information about action in his or her head until he or she can attach it later to a subject.
This is mentally exhausting for a reader, continually saving action information in his or her head until a subject shows up later, and whether or not a reader knows why he or she is becoming mentally exhausted and annoyed with a script? It’s going to take its toll on the read. And it’s going to stop the reader from “seeing” a movie playing out in his or her head during the read.
Active voice is your friend. Learn it. Love it. Use it.
*Another helpful page to visit for examples of active and passive voice is :::Towson.Edu::: check it out, they have parrot examples, [yes, really, parrots!], those are always fun, go see.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Max Adams is an author and award winning screenwriter. She has written for Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures – and a couple others to remain unnamed because no one around here wants to get black listed. Max is a former volunteer AFI Alumni reader and WGAw online mentor, has appeared as a speaker at AMPAS, USC, and Film Arts Foundation, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Utah, is the author of The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide AND The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, is the founder of two international online screenwriting workshops, and has the dubious distinction of having been dubbed “Red Hot Adams” by Daily Variety for selling three pitches over a holiday weekend – which made her agents cry. [In a good way.] She answers now to both “Max” and “Red Hot” in crowds and dog parks.