My goal in writing for this website is to create informative articles that make you a better writer. But not so secretly, the more I study the medium, the better writer I become. One thing that's taken me to another level is understanding active writing.

Screenwriting is an art that thrives on the intricate balance of elements such as dialogue, scene descriptions, character development, plot progression, and the voice of the narrative. One of the most fundamental aspects of writing style is the choice between active and passive voice.

So many people mix them and use one when the other is better.

I have found that having a great command of this concept is what can set you apart from the pack and make your script endlessly readable.

So let's dive in.

Understanding Active and Passive Voice

Na'vi people riding water creatures, 'Avatar: The Way of Water'

'Avatar: The Way of Water'

20th Century Studios

If you're like me, you think you know the difference between these two things. But there are so many nuanced reasons you're choosing one thing or the other. Time to pull out some grammar lessons and dust off my English degree.

What is the Active Voice?

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action.

For example, in Top Gun: Maverick, "Pete Mitchell pilots the fighter jet."

In this sentence, Pete Mitchell (subject) is performing the action of piloting (verb) on the object, the fighter jet. Active voice gives a clear picture of the events, injecting energy into the narrative. The subject takes center stage, directly engaging in the action, making the storytelling more dynamic and engaging.

When To Use the Active Voice

Active voice is the go-to choice in various scenarios in screenwriting:

  • Character-driven actions: "Spider-Man swings through the city."
  • Scene descriptions: "The sun sets over the sands of Arrakis."
  • Tense shifts: "Harry Potter fought Voldemort," versus "Harry Potter fights Voldemort."

Active writing is dynamic and makes the characters proactive. They're out there doing things.

After I'm done with my "final" draft, I always do a polish where I make sure most of my sentences are written in the active voice. I feel like it propels the story forward, and I know that when execs read it, they'll be turning pages because the language on the page is telling them to keep going.

What is the Passive Voice?

A man in a fighter jet above snow covered mountains, 'Top Gun: Maverick'

'Top Gun: Maverick'

Paramount Pictures

On the other hand, in the passive voice, the object of the sentence is prioritized over the subject.

For instance, "The fighter jet is piloted by Pete Mitchell."

In this sentence, the fighter jet (object) is the focus, and Pete Mitchell (subject) comes at the end, creating a different emphasis. It just reads more boring and less exciting.

When to Use the Passive Voice

Okay, so when would you actually write in the passive voice? Passive voice, although considered "weaker" than active voice, has its unique place in writing.

  • Concealing the action performer: "Voldemort is being defeated."
  • Colloquialisms: "Mistakes were made" versus "We made mistakes."
  • Emphasizing the action: "The Death Star is destroyed."

Passive voice can add suspense, mystery, and a unique progression of time, making it a valuable tool in a writer's arsenal.

The Art of Switching Voices

Spider-man trying to shoot webs, 'Spider-Man 2'

'Spider-Man 2'

Sony Pictures Releasing

Think of the active voice as something you want as the default in many scenes, the hammer. Then, the passive voice is your delicate level, which allows you to make sure each scene has balance.

Transitioning from Passive to Active

Yes, you're going to bounce back and forth between these two when writing. The choice between active and passive voice depends on the context of your scene or story. However, it's essential to understand how to switch between the two effectively.

Consider an example in passive voice: "A sleigh is being pushed across the snow."

The action is clear, but the performer is unknown, creating suspense. The active voice equivalent would be: "Santa pushes his sleigh across the snow." Here, the character, Santa, is immediately known, making the action more direct.

It's a way to save space in your screenplay when you're trying to be succinct.

In screenwriting, excessive use of passive voice can be exhausting for the reader as they continually ask, "Who's doing what?" Creating a clear mental image is crucial to experience the story as intended, making active voice a preferable choice.

Summing Up How to Master Active vs. Passive Voice in Screenwriting 

The choice of voice in screenwriting dramatically impacts how the reader "sees" the events in their mind. You can showcase your unique use of these tools in your writing.

While active voice is predominantly preferred for its directness and energy, passive voice has its unique advantages, adding depth, suspense, and subtlety to the narrative. The choice between the two should be dictated by the context, ensuring that the voice enhances the story and enriches the reader's experience.

The artful balance and effective use of active and passive voice in scriptwriting can transform your screenplay from good to great, creating a compelling narrative that resonates with your audience. So, embrace the power of voice in screenwriting, and let your story speak volumes.

Now go get writing.