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Showing vs. Telling—Puppets, Cartoon Characters, or Live Action?

Friday, February 2, 2007

All right—onto the last post (maybe) in this series: active writing and character movement.

In nearly every style book, whether academic or publication writing, we are admonished to “prefer active verbs”:

From The Bedford Handbook(academic): 14a: Prefer active verbs. Active verbs express meaning more emphatically and vigorously than their weaker counterparts—forms of the verb be (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) lack vigor because they convey no action. Verbs in the passive voice lack strength because their subjects receive the action instead of doing it.

From The Chicago Manual of Style: 5.112: Active and passive voice. Voice shows whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon(passive voice)—that is, whether the subject performs or receives the action of the verb. . . . The passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle. . . . As a matter of style, passive voice is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice.

From The Elements of Style by Strunk & White: 14. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . . The habitual use of the active voice . . . makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned with principally action but in writing of any kind.

  • There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. versus
  • Dead leaves covered the ground.

From Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble: Active voice…charges the story and gives it life. Passive voice…simply doesn’t do this. The active voice with its direct and straightforward verb use rivets our attention. When we want to move things along, this is what we reach for so the story pace won’t slip…

Active writing is a large part of showing instead of telling your story. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before or not, but I have enjoyed the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter . . . books—reading and listening (yes, I preordered the 7th book the day the release date was announced). But I am firmly convinced that her books would be several dozen if not hundred pages shorter if her editor would eliminate her passive-voice sentence construction:

  • It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2005, p. 1) . [32 words]
  • Near midnight, the Prime Minister sat alone in his office, reading a long memo that slipped through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. [27 words]

When I was in grad school, part of our assignment for the week of residency each semester (when we were all on campus together) was to critique about 10 pages for 12-15 other students. Whenever I received a first-term student’s file, the first thing I did was to do a search for the words “was” and “were” (alone and in combination with “it” and “there”). I then highlighted every instance in red so that when I gave the critique, printed in color so that the track changes and highlights showed up quite well, the new writer would have a good point of reference when I mentioned passive verb structure in my critique.

As far as moving characters around, again I will encourage you to spend some time with the thesaurus. I have section 177 of my beloved Roget’s tagged, marked, highlighted, and dogeared. The section header is TRAVEL and it is where I turn every time I need to get a character from one place to another, for example, across a room. Sure, I could write, He crossed the room to her. It’s active. But it doesn’t really show much. It’s a puppet on a string—and we can see the strings! How about:

  • He migrated across the room toward her.
  • She flitted through the packed room to join him at the fireplace.
  • He drifted over to the table.
  • She strayed into the confectionary store.
  • He thundered up the stairs.
  • She raced down the street to catch him.
  • He swaggered into the room.

Simply by replacing “walked” or “crossed” or any generic “go/went” verb with a descriptive verb, the sentence now reveals something about the character—about the emotion connected with the movement—it shows the pace, the body language, the meaning behind the movement, not just the movement itself.

However, you do not need to do this with every single movement your characters make, otherwise you will end up with cartoon characters who bounce, swagger, float, flit, or perambulate throughout your book. Sometimes, a well-placed “went” or “walked” works fine—especially if it’s in the midst of a lot of other descriptive narrative. Let your characters’ emotions and the intensity of the scene lead you toward choosing the correct verbs to use to convey what your reader needs to know about your character’s thoughts and emotions—without “telling” the reader what those thoughts and emotions are!

One area in which choosing these types of active verbs has fallen out of favor amongst publishers is with dialogue tags. No longer are we allowed to use embellished tags such as she grumbled, he roared, or I intoned, and now even said is on the black list. So, the best way to tag our dialogue is to incorporate action or introspection as the tag:

William stepped to the fore of the poop deck. “Mr. Cochrane.”

At the quarterdeck gunwale railing, the First Lieutenant turned and touched his hat. “Aye, Captain?”

“Any sign of the Commodore yet?”

“Aye, sir. Jolly boat just cleared the dock.”

At last. “Ready the ship for sail. As soon as Commodore Northrop is aboard, we’ll get underway for Portsmouth.”

“Sir . . .” Cochrane cleared his throat and shifted from foot to foot.

Not like his second in command to act nervous. “What is it, man?”

“Sir, there appear to be two women with the Commodore.”

William’s stomach clenched. He reached to his right. “My glass.”

Information is disseminated in the dialogue and the movements of the characters start building their personalities. In the last line, because I have written William’s action as He reached to his right, it eliminates the need for a dialogue tag such as he commanded after “My glass.” His action and the dialogue work together to show he is giving a command.

If you aren’t already a people-watcher, become one. Watch facial expressions. Watch the way people move. Does she have a tendency to reach out and touch someone’s arm when speaking to them? Does he raise his eyebrows and nod his head when he listens to his friend’s story? This is a great exercise for when you’re standing in a long line—like the post office on tax day or the security gate at the airport on a holiday weekend. When we stand in line, we’re more than likely frustrated and showing our emotions on our sleeves. How does the person in front of you stand? Tall and erect? Slouching? If he’s talking on the phone, how does he hold it? When you see someone meet with an acquaintance, how do they greet each other? What can you deduct about their relationship by the way they touch (or don’t touch) each other? By their facial expressions and tones of voice? By the way they part? (You can do this with TV shows and movies, but those actions/reactions are, for obvious reasons, not as realistic as what you can observe in the real world.)

Once you can start visualizing and describing the way people move, start applying that to your characters. If your characters were actors and you the movie director, how would you instruct them to convey the emotion of each scene they act out? Or put yourself in the actor’s role. If you had only your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice to convey what’s happening inside your character’s head, how would you move, what expressions would you make, how would you speak?

Then, write it.

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Saturday, February 3, 2007 11:07 am

    What a great series and one I will revisit again and again, I’m sure.

    Congrats to Georgiana!


  2. Vicki T. permalink
    Saturday, February 3, 2007 7:55 pm

    Thank you!!! This has been extremely helpful. I’ve even printed each day out and am keeping them right next to my computer for easy reference. Can’t wait to see what nugget of knowledge you opt to teach us next. 🙂


  3. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Saturday, February 3, 2007 7:56 pm


    I’m open to suggestions!


  4. Vicki T. permalink
    Sunday, February 4, 2007 5:16 pm

    Hmmm, finding your writer’s voice?


  5. Georgiana D permalink
    Monday, February 5, 2007 10:08 pm

    “Yippee!” She raised her hands in triumph after winning the contest.

    Thanks Kaye! And I loved this series!

    Oh, I should probably send you my addy:-)



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