There seems to be confusion between the actual grammar of active and passive voice, and prose that's accused of being "passive". So, let's start with the bare facts. When the action - the verb - of a sentence is being performed by the subject of the sentence, the sentence is in active voice. This kind of subject + verb + object construction is the basic building block of English.
- Anne chases the cat.
- The dog bit Ben.
Here, the action is being done by the subject of the sentence: "Anne chases" and "The dog bit". When the action is being done to the subject of the sentence, by something else, then the sentence is in passive voice.
- The cat is chased by Anne
- Ben was bitten by the dog.
The sentence expresses exactly the same meaning, and order is still subject + verb + what's called the agent: but now the subject is the thing suffering the verb: "The cat is chased" and "Ben was bitten". It's the agent who is doing the verb. And you'll have noticed that, to make a passive voice sentence, the verb becomes a verb phrase, with the auxiliary verb (the little extra one) usually being a form of "to be" - is, was, would have been, shall be - though in informal expressions "to get" also figures:
- She would have got promoted last week.
- I get beaten at tennis.
As with that example, with passive voice verbs often there is no agent, and this is one of the most important reasons for choosing it: the agent is unknown, or not relevant or something non-specific.
- I was blindfolded and pushed into the cellar.
- The car can't be driven, and the weekend has been ruined.
- It is believed that order has been restored in Paris and the Estates General will be summoned next week.
- Water was added to the test-tube and the solution [was] heated to boiling point.
- Had the catch been landed on the quay, it would have been sold much more quickly.
- It was decided that all the Borough's playgrounds should be closed and the money allocated to the Council's hospitality fund.
Notice how in sentences like that, with more than one verb phrase, you can often leave the auxiliary verb out of the second one. Indeed, in the blindfolded example it would be very clunky if you didn't.
Notice, too, how the motive for leaving out the agent may not be admirable! And that's the clue to one creative reason for using passive voice: it may have exactly the same meaning, but it has a different tone and feel. The subject of the sentence is often our representative in the experience the story, and here they're suffering the verb, not doing it. There may be no agent: nothing and no one is actually acting at all, within the sentence. Sentences come out a bit longer and more complex: they seem more formal. They may be slightly slower to read, but sometimes you want to slow the reader down. Things tend to be more general and less specific.
But usually, storytelling is a business of character-in-action, so most of the time you want the subject to be the active element, and you want to be specific. You usually don't want to say
- Jane was angry. The wardrobe door was slammed. ... It would be better storytelling to write it as
- Jane got up and slammed the wardrobe door. ... because Jane-in-action is what drives the story.
But not always. For one thing, there are the moments when you actually want to evoke the voice of a responsibility-shy, vote-grubbing Local Councillor, or a traditionally-trained scientist. But also, sometimes, it's a crucial part of how the storytelling works:
- Hundreds were killed.
- The family was horrified by everything, that day.
- John was seized from behind, flung down on the rug, then massaged into a blissful stupor.
- The wardrobe door had been slammed, and the mirror had unquestionably been broken, by something, but by what? No one would say.
Another virtue of passive voice is that it can help to make the sentence more fluent. In
- The cat is chased by Anne, teased by Joe and worshipped by the baby.
each verb has a different agent, but the cat can stay as the subject because we're in passive voice. It would be more stop-start-y to have it in active voice, because the three separate subject + verb phrases in the active voice version makes for three finite clauses. What's more, the focus on the cat is diluted, as it gets tucked away as an object, and represented by a mere pronoun, at the end of each phrase:
- Anne chases the cat, Joe teases it and the baby worships it.
Which way is right for your sentence in this scene? Then there's the way passive voice may enable you to get the main verb earlier in the sentence, and, by getting the verb in early, it'll also help you to steer clear of the pitfalls of front-loading and dangling modifiers. Here, the first example is active voice, and second is passive voice.
- A combination of clever training, hard work, natural talent, and a sprinkling of good luck which no one could have bargained for, has rewarded Carol with a gold medal.
- Carol has been rewarded with a gold medal thanks to a combination of clever training, hard work, natural talent, and a sprinkling of good luck which no one could have bargained for.*
In active voice, the subject is "a combination ...", but it's a long phrase and so it's a long time before we get to the verb, and then the direct object "Carol", and the indirect object "a gold medal". The passive voice version works much more clearly and forcefully, because the basics of what it's about come early. What's more, because English is naturally end-weighted, tending to have the real point of the sentence at the end, the long collection builds to a nice climax of surprise which suits the subject. (David Crystal discusses this and much else about how to use our language in the wonderful Making Sense of Grammar.)
So, sometimes passive voice is just what you want. Sometimes it's the last thing you want. You decide. These are all reasons why the narrower-minded and stupider would-be pundits of creative writing who tell you to avoid passive voice are wrong. Like all the other things you're told to avoid, sometimes the very particular advantages and effects are exactly what you need.
Mind you, using passive voice and then leaving out the agent can also get you into trouble. This, from the San Francisco Chronicle site via the World Wide Words blog, is grammatically correct but, oh dear!:
- When deputies arrived, they found a man down in the backyard and he was determined to be deceased.
The reason for that delightful disaster is that the police wrote a passive voice version of the police's action, but we read it as a description of the dead man's action (c.f. "I am happy to be saved".) Then there's the semi-passive. These are constructions where the verb is behaving like an adjective (for more, see Have You Heard the One About "Was"). They don't really have an agent, though we might understand one from the context. So
- Judith is interested in grammar. ... is a passive voice construction because it can be reversed to make an active voice one:
- Grammar interests Judith ... Whereas
- Judith is interested. ... and
- Judith is very interested. ... are semi-passives: they use is, but they can't be flipped into active voice, as a proper passive can. They're behaving much more as adjectives, in a similar way to
- Judith is cold. ... or
- Judith is very tall.
Since passive voice is such a useful tool, may I suggest that you don't use "passive" more loosely, as some of those stupider would-be pundits do: a catch-all term for flat, impersonal, distant, un-engaged, un-dramatic, clichéd writing? Those are just some of the alternative insults, and they're all more useful and less ambiguous than "passive". And to make the point, I'm going to finish with some examples which use some similar verbs, and may not be the most active way to express something, but are not grammatically passive constructions:
- He will be scarlet, confused, overheated and beautifully dressed.
- Bouncer was hysterically delighted to see them.
- Dismayed to see Bouncer, he cowered behind his wife.
- The house is at the centre of the storm and the family have hidden themselves in the cellar.
- Be the house what it may, it will not trouble us.
- Surgery was successful, and the patient recovered well.
- It was 1856 and a large man stepped out of a doorway into a snowstorm. (More here.)
- The house is standing in a flat field and the flowers straggling over the porch are un-watered.
- Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire - nosing, pausing, turning ... (More here.)
* notice the essential Oxford comma in both those examples