Thursday, August 28, 2008

Passive and Showing vs. Telling

Yes, this is getting repetitive. Sometimes you have to explain something multiple times before the right phrasing or example comes up that causes the light bulb to go off in someone's head. Bear with me.

One of the easiest ways to spot passive voice is by the use of conjugations of "be": was, am, is with a helping verb ending in -ing or -ed.

Example: was willing, am going.

Instead of "she was willing" you can say "she eagerly nodded her consent." Not only are you showing the reader by the character's actions that they want to do that thing.

Action speaks louder than your words. Peppering your manuscript with descriptive and emotional actions will convey much more forcefully what's in the characters' heads than a narrative that simply says, "she was willing."

Would you rather read:

She was willing. She picked up the gun and left the room. He heard gunshots.


She nodded with a feral smile on her dirty face. Then, she snatched the AK-47 from the table and removed the safety like the pro she was. "Let's kick some ass." She darted out of the room, with her rifle firing a rapid staccato.

In the first example, the author simply told you what happened. In the second example, she showed you.

Passive voice is weak, lazy storytelling. It's a bad habit, but one that you can correct with a few button presses, because more often than not your helping verb can become active.

"She was nodding" becomes "she nodded."

"He was running" becomes "He ran."

Better still is to think beyond the most common verbs. Instead of "nodded", how about "jerked her chin". Instead of "ran" how about "dashed"?

In other cases, try something more descriptive.

"He was flabbergasted" is telling.

His jaw hung open and he stared, his blue eyes wide. "I don't believe you." That's showing.

Get it? I hope so.

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