When I had my first few critiques from my fellow members of our writers’ group they constantly told me I was using too many passive words. I needed more action. SHOW DON’T TELL. How many times have you heard that phrase?
Let’s look at two sentences. I hope you will see the difference between them with one being passive and the other active.
He rode his bike down the road.
That’s quite boring. Let’s tear it apart. First of all, who is “he”? If this was part of an ongoing story we’d probably know who “he” is, but with the sentence all by itself we want to know who “he” is.
Next, “he rode” – did he ride fast, slow, wobbly? I’m not seeing a picture in my mind how he’s riding the bike.
Look at the word “bike”. What kind of a bike is it? Is it a two-wheeler, a tricyle, with training wheels or without training wheels. Is it a motorcycle or scooter? We have no idea exactly what he is riding by just having the word “bike”.
Finally, “down the rode”. Is it a dirt road, a two-track, a busy highway, a country lane. Is he in the city or country?
There is no way I could see an accurate picture in my mind of what was going on by just reading “He rode his bike down the road.”
Let’s look at a different sentence.
Jake maneuvered his Harley down the dark, winding, dirt road.
Now we know his name, “Jake”. We don’t know exactly how old he is, but we know he is at least old enough to drive a motorcycle. The name Jake tells us something, too. It is probably short for Jacob. Yet, he does not use the formal name. He’s Jake. I’m starting to get a picture in my mind’s eye what he might look like.
Jake “maneuvered”. He wasn’t taking a gentle ride on his bike. He was driving the motorcycle skillfully, with purpose, calculating where he was going.
We learn the bike is not just any old motorcycle. It’s a Harley. When I hear the name Harley I immediately think of the big motorcycles the gangs drive. It’s not a bike for a sissy. This gives us another dimension to Jake. He’s probably not a wimp.
Now for the description of the road – “dark, winding, dirt road”. Jake is most likely riding at night. He definitely is not on a paved highway. He is on a road which could cause some issues if he’s not careful. There’s minimal light. The road is not straight, so Jake has to be alert for upcoming curves. It’s a dirt road which would make it easier for Jake to wipe out on his Harley if he should hit some loose gravel.
See the better picture you get of what is happening from the second sentence vs the first one? We all need to keep that in mind. Our writing needs to show action. We want our readers to feel they are in the story. Can they picture in their minds what’s happening? Plus, the increased sense of action keeps the reader in suspense. Is Jake going to make it down that dark, winding, dirt road on his Harley without wiping out?
You must focus on detail. Help your reader create the picture of what is happening in your story. You don’t need to overdo the detail, but there must be enough so the person reading the story can feel they’re a part of the scene.
The next time you are reading a novel look at the detail and action presented in the writing. Do you feel as if you are actually seeing what is taking place? Remember to write down what you are seeing in your mind’s eye about your characters and their situations. Without your words the reader has no way of seeing and feeling what you saw and felt as you were writing, no way of experiencing the pain, joy, adrenalin rush your character might be going through.
Use active words, not passive ones. SHOW DON’T TELL.
I don’t claim to be an expert. I am learning along the way just as you are. I want to share what I am learning as I grow in the craft of writing. My hope is that something I learned will help you as well.