Thou Shalt be Active

by Chris McMahon

Talking about writing rules, one of the first that got drummed into me (actually, more like beaten into me – around the head with what was left of my frayed manuscript) was the importance of active writing; making the prose immediate, rather than passive. The shorthand for this is ‘Show don’t Tell’. You could do a lot worse than plough through your manuscript with this mantra repeating in your head like some sort of Buddhist chant. Certainly for action, it’s an absolute must. But it really got me wondering – is this really universally applicable?

Some of the books I admired most as a young reader, such as Lord of the Rings, were full of passive text. Huge wads of backstory and enormously long sentences that would never get past a modern editor. Yet it worked. Another book I admire tremendously is Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. Accustomed to more modern prose, the passive style put me off initially, but it did not take me long (about two pages), to get sucked right in. That book is an absolute classic.

I guess one of the things that is really attractive about passive prose (often combined with an omniscient PoV) is that it has a sort of reflective power, enabling a deeper level of insight to be injected into the work – be it on the level of character or life, the universe and everything. That sort of thing is difficult with strictly ‘active’ prose. Often tongue and cheek humor also works best in a passive mode (outside of dialogue that is). I think this is one of the things that I tried to emulate in my first attempts to write fantasy, which in my case came off as excessive backstory with overly grandiose metaphors (hey – don’t say anything about PoV!).

The other thing about active prose is that is takes space. I often wonder if there is a case for a blend of active and passive prose, just for the sake of economy. It’s a lot faster to say ‘Joe survived the battle, running from the fiends of the Hegemon with his sword between his legs,’ than to go through the whole scene recounting every shiver of fear and blood-filled drop of sweat. If the scene is not really that crucial to the story, but merely a bridge, does it really matter?

Is just makes me wonder. Is passive text total taboo, or is it just one more tool, and perhaps a valid one in some cases?


  1. I’ve always thought a lot of these “rules” (no passive! No -ly words EVER! No change in POV!) were on par with the “two negatives make a positive” — a rule that “scientifically minded grammarians” made up when negative numbers were first being used a lot. *That* one only works in English, and it’s an artificial construct. So is “ain’t is not a word. What would it be an contraction of?” [I had to stay after school for asking my teacher what the perfectly acceptible “won’t” is a contraction of, btw — I always was a wisenheimer at the wrong time]

    Yes, if you’re telling the entire battle in passive, unless it *is* a flashback, that’s probably not a good idea. But, IMHO, don’t let the mechanics take over.

    OTOH, I’m the least published person around, and my opinion isn’t even worth two cents! 🙂

    1. Hi, Lin. Grammar and technical rules are one of those things that seem to go in one of my ears and out the other. I tool up on them for a particular issue that might come up, but they seem to fade just as quickly. I think I have managed to internalise things like tense and grammar.

      You can certainly get yourself into a mess examining your own process too much. I think there is a natural point where you let go of that and just go instinctively. It’s like once you have learned some sort of physical skill – at some point it becomes unconscious. At this point your performance will actually drop if you suddenly stop to think – Oh, heck how am I doing this? Or wait a second – what comes next? Do I put my foot here or there?

      I also think some local language usages invalidate strict rules as well. Especially if it’s dialogue – realism is more important. People do talk like that, despite what a grammar aficionado might think.

      Chris McMahon

  2. I think it is a “matter of degree”.

    Passive like omniscient PoV can work when used in small pieces.

    While I’m not sure I’d enjoy omniscient PoV for an entire story, I’ve read stories/books where I’d love to have the author give us the “big picture” of the events in his book.

    Harry Turtledove is one where a few scenes from an omniscient PoV would be helpful in knowing what’s going on. He does so many POV of the “little guys” in his alt-history wars that we never get a good view of the overall war.

    1. Hi, Paul. Completely with you there – omniscient is great for the big picture stuff. It’s no secret I am a die-hard David Gemmell fan, he often starts with a short section from an observer’s PoV. It’s strange since he works from a characters PoV so well, but it seems to somehow still draw you in.

      I’ve recently been re-reading the Patrick Rothfuss books – the Kingkiller series. He starts with quite a lengthy section that is totally from the objective observer’s PoV. I know many people that never made it past this intro chunk, which is a real shame. I consider it a very risky move on his part. I know what he was trying to do – create a tension in the reader’s mind and lay the framework for a whole bunch of unspoken/implied questions that will drive the involvement of the reader. It does that – but still. . . Risky. I almost did not make it. Had I not been short on reading material that week I would have passed the series by. Thankfully I didn’t – I now love that series. I just hope it ends well!

      Chris McMahon

  3. Most writing rules seem to be breakable–so long as you do a really good job of it.

    Passive voice isn’t quite the same as “Tell not show.” Umm, examples. Passive would be: The vase was struck, and knocked to the ground, shattering. Tell: Pete bumped the vase and broke it. Show: Pete limped through the room, trying to keep the weight off his injured leg. He lurched into the side table and snatched at the vase as it toppled. It slipped through his fingers and crashed to the floor.

    If it’s unimportant, telling works to keep the pace moving. But if the vase is concealing an important clue, showing is necessary. Passive is rarely suitable in fiction, and absolutely necessary for business, science, and police reports.

    :: Grin :: Now a superior grammar nazi can come and tell me I don’t understand the terms at all.

      1. Chris,

        Nope. I think – and I may be wrong – that Pam’s first example is past-progressive tense (which like its cousin past-perfect is very passive in nature) where the other two are simple past tense.

        Present tense would be: “Pete bumps the vase and breaks it”

        We’re accustomed to thinking of simple past tense in narrative as “as it’s happening”, most likely because it’s such a long-standing tradition going way back to the itinerant storytellers.

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