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Show vs. Tell and Active/Passive Writing

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Old 12-05-2008, 10:35 AM
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Default Show vs. Tell and Active/Passive Writing

Originally written by Daedalus:


(A Study on Showing, Telling, and Passive/Active Writing)


This time last year, I didn’t know what any of those meant. I always wrote things the way I heard them in my head, never chopping or changing, never wondering about active/passive connotations, or whether I was showing or telling. So it came as a big surprise to learn that images could be strengthened by showing, or sentences could grab a reader’s attention better in active voice. I’ve written this guide as a reference for new (and old) writers who mightn’t know how to do these things, or don’t even know what they are.

“Show, don’t tell.” If you’re aspiring in any way to become a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard this rule. You’ll find it in almost every critique given. But, like all rules, there are exceptions. An entire novel full of showing would be long, tedious, and exhausting for your reader. Basically, showing is about making a scene more vivid. Take a look at these two examples:

Jack Green was a tall and very muscular man.

Jack Green ducked under the doorway as he entered the kitchen. A large cardboard box sat on the floor in front of him. A computer mouse protruded from inside. Scooping down, he picked up the box without much effort. As he carried it to the garage outside, the sun gleamed off his bulging muscles.

The first example, I think you’ll agree, is dull. There isn’t much there, is there? You can’t go anywhere else. I’ve told you Jack is tall and very muscular. It’s like me asking you a question and then giving you the answer. You don’t have any thinking to do. I’ve told you a fact. You know that Jack is tall and muscular; but you don’t see it.

In the second example, I’ve shown you that Jack is tall. He ducked under the kitchen doorway – has to be well over six foot. He lifted a large cardboard box without breaking a sweat – he’s strong. And then I showed you his bulging biceps, which tells you how strong he is. You can make your own decisions now. The bulging biceps might be twenty-four inch pythons. Or, a moderate sixteen. He might be six-foot-four, or six-foot-eight. Notice how I also showed you that the box had a mouse inside it? Makes you stop and think – I wonder what else is inside? You come to the conclusion that there’s a computer in it. I haven’t told you this – I’ve allowed you to figure it out for yourself. That’s the art of showing.

You’ll notice that sentence B is a lot longer than A. It takes more words to show something. Which is why you need to alternate between showing and telling. Too much of each is a hindrance and will annoy your reader.

Let’s say, for example, you’re writing a short story that consists of this: Jack has an argument with his wife. He drives to work. Due to his lack of concentration, he falls off a scaffold and is seriously injured. You can show the first and third scenes. If nothing important happens in the drive in between, it might be better to simply tell the reader that he drove there.

Showing is a wonderful tool. It allows the reader to forget they’re reading a novel, helps them to get to know the character, and makes the writing engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking.

Finding the balance is the tough part. Important scenes should be dramatised and shown. What happens in between can be told. Don’t think that you need to show everything to grip a reader. That’s where active writing can be a godsend.


There’s a common misconception that passive writing is a grammatical error. It isn’t. Simply, it’s to do with style. Using active voice brings your writing to life and engages the reader.

What is passive voice? Basically, it’s all to do with sentence structure and word use. When you make the object of an action into the subject of the sentence, that’s a passive construction. For example:

The road was crossed by John.

This is passive. John is doing the action in this sentence, but the road is the grammatical subject. The road (object) is being crossed by John (the actor). By putting the actor in the subject position:

John crossed the road.

Now we have an active sentence. John (the actor) crosses the road (the object).

An easy way to spot passive sentences is to look for a form of the verb “to be” (are, am, is, was, were, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. Past participles usually are verbs that end in -ed. Again, there are exceptions. “Paid,” instead of “payed”. “Driven,” instead of “drived”. Once you know to look for these, passive constructions are easily spotted.

Here’s another example of passive and active construction:

The ball was hit by John.

Who’s the actor here? John. But where is he in the sentence? He’s after the verb (“hit”) isn’t he? He’s at the object position at the end of the sentence. Put the actor in front of the verb:

John hit the ball.

Now we have an active construction. The sentence is more engaging.

Is it, therefore, wrong to use passive writing at all? No. Sometimes passive actually works better than active. Lab reports, scientific essays, and historical writings all read better with passive writing. Sometimes, to emphasise a sentence in a particular way, you need to use passive construction. For example:

100 dollars are needed to book a table at Righby’s.

In this case, the passive sentence emphasises the fact that one-hundred dollars are needed. To say:

It costs 100 to book a table at Righby’s.

This would put the emphasis on the table and not the money.

To summarise: Many writers who have used telling and passive voice have been published in the past. It’s not wrong, by any means. But why use the lacklustre when you can use the brilliant? Why settle for telling when you can so vividly show and let the reader become a part of your novel? It’s a stylistic choice. If your writing is good, this could be the missing link that makes it brilliant. In other words: Why settle for second place when first is within your grasp?

Source used:
"Passive Voice." The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 1998-2007. <http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/passivevoice.html>.

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Last edited by HoiLei; 04-27-2009 at 04:06 PM..
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