Third element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)
Show, don’t tell—use active voice, not passive.
I know you hear this all the time, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. Or, maybe some writers don’t fully comprehend what that means.
Active voice “shows” the reader the story in a dramatic sense; it is particularly important when dealing with a character’s emotions.
Passive voice “tells” the reader something happened—it is the voice of history books, academia, and journalism, and the fiction of the 19th and early to mid-20th century.
Active voice/showing/revealing engages the reader—draws the reader toward the characters and into the action of the story.
Passive voice/telling distances the reader—it tugs the reader away from the characters and the action.
It’s about the verbs: Minimize your use of the verb “was” and instead use a descriptive verb that conveys the action in the scene. Recall the earlier example from Ruth Ware’s book in the Structure section.
- The ball was hit.
- A sound was heard.
- There was a line of sweat on his upper lip. His drink was a martini with a lemon twist, no ice. He was drinking it in swift gulps.
Yes, the verb “was” serves a purpose, and sometimes it is the best option. But it doesn’t have to the primary verb in your entire book.
- John swung the bat and whacked the knuckleball over the outfield fence.
- Joe heard a twig snap and flinched.
- A line of sweat glistened his upper lip. He picked up his drink—a martini with a lemon twist, no ice—and drained the glass in three gulps. [“swift” deleted: A gulp is swift by definition.)
Use active voice when conveying the emotions of your characters. Don’t tell the reader what emotion the character is feeling. Show the reader how the character acts and reacts; then the reader will know the emotional state of the character without being told. (More of this in POV.)
- She was worried.
- She was totally infuriated.
- Jane frowned. Or Jane furrowed her brow. Or Jane pursed her lips and scratched her head.
- Jane kicked him in the balls, then walloped him on the head with a frying pan.
Keep the use of the verb “to be”—“is,” “was,” “were” and “would”—to a minimum by using descriptive verb forms. The use of “to be” distances the reader, dilutes the effect, takes the punch out of your prose, gives your writing the “wuzzies.”
I said earlier the “show, don’t tell” principle applies to fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction, while passive voice is the voice of nonfiction, history books, academia, journalism, and Dullsville. But even in those latter instances, it doesn’t have to be passive. Narrative nonfiction is now used extensively in journalism, and many universities include it in their journalism curricula. Examples of it being used in works of history include: Astoria, Undaunted Courage, They Must Be Monsters—the book I mentioned about the McMartin Preschool scandal—and other works of a historical nature.
You ask: How do I achieve this?
Answer: You do it with scenes, where characters interact and speak to one another. Yes, in non-fiction it may involve some creative license, but it is based on letters, journals, diaries, interviews, police reports, and news reports, or the author recreates how a scene may have played out when the specifics are unclear, but without altering the known or accepted facts.
Corollary to show, don’t tell—reveal, don’t tell
What’s the difference? Reveal is “big picture”: through a character’s words, deeds, and internal thoughts, the author reveals aspects of that character’s personality, proclivities, and background, rather than through a disembodied narrative voice.
Followed by narrative BS (back story): . . . as a child, nothing she did was ever good enough for her father, who berated her over every little misstep, and that tainted her relationships with men. Or, as an eleven-year-old, she was sexually abused by her older sister’s boyfriend, and that left her distrustful of men.
Telling = passive verb: was.
- Showing: “You jerk,” she shouted, then kicked him in the shins and whacked him over the head with a cast-iron skillet.
Showing = descriptive verbs: kicked, whacked.
- Revealing emotion and motivation behind a character’s words or actions:
Showing and revealing can occur simultaneously. In the previous example, we see that not only is this character angry, she’s willing to be violent, and what that may portend for future situations or confrontations. The reader wonders why is this character so angry? What happened to her?
However, the answer doesn’t have to come immediately, although it could. For example, while the guy is lying unconscious, she could slide down the wall and sit on the floor, knees up, hands to her face, tears streaking her cheeks, thinking, My god, what have I done? When I attacked Bill, I didn’t see him. I saw my father. Or: My god, when I attacked Bill, I didn’t see him. I saw my sister’s boyfriend.
Or the character could reveal this later, in a conversation with a friend or psychotherapist or a stranger on a plane . . . she confesses to what she had done and what lies behind the outburst of emotion—her overbearing father: Nothing I did was ever good enough for him. He berated me over every little misstep. Or her sister’s pedophile boyfriend. He abused me when I was a vulnerable eleven-year-old.
This way the character reveals the information, rather than having an information dump on the part of the author. This engages the reader, and draws the reader deeper into the story through the characters, rather than distancing the reader, as if he or she were reading an article in a newspaper.
These techniques can apply to narrative/creative nonfiction as well. For example, the non-fiction book Astoria by Peter Stark. He’s not a historian; he’s a journalist. And by drawing on letters, diaries, and historical accounts, he brought this 200-year-old story of fur trappers to life by applying techniques that are generally employed in writing literature/ fiction—creating scenes, and showing rather than telling. Historian Stephen Ambros also did this, although to a lesser degree, in Undaunted Courage, a well-written and captivating book about the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Fourth in the series: Narrative Mode