Friday, June 12, 2009

Thou Shalt be Active [NOT a message from the Surgeon-General]

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. Its 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?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Writing styles date. I loved reading Fritz Lieber back in the 1970s when I first discovered him.

But, when I glanced at his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories recently there was a lot of telling and not much dialogue. Having said that I suspect the story would suck me in.

Chris McMahon said...

Yeah, I loved those Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tales. I think they inspired some of my character friendships and the tone of some of my dialogue. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes things need to occur in a story that just aren't terribly interesting. A quick telling so you can get back to showing when things get interesting is best.

And some authors are supposed to give data dumps. Imagine the howls of outrage if David Weber didn't give us the specs on every new weapon system.

Your best rule of thumb is keep the telling and data dumps as brief as possible. "Three days later she reached the city" beats telling us all about the undulating hills, her incipient saddle sores, brushing her horse while the stew simmered, and other mundane things that would just slow down the story.

You might need to show the ride to slow down the pace of the story, or to do a bit of character development, but if it's just empty time, tell us.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I came to the same conclusions. I guess its probably just me taking everything to its absolute extreme once again. Rules can have this sort of negative attraction for me, where I focus too much on them and forget about the rest of the story. I think I had got to that extreme with the Show don't Tell mantra before.
Like you say, balance is the key.
In fact whatever serves the story. I must keep repeating that, in fact that's my new rule. . . [laughs maniacally]

Kate said...

Moderation in all things, including moderation, Chris!

If you go too far into "only what serves the story" you end up like I did with a stripped down, massively condensed style with almost nothing to ground your reader. To much "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative" and you end up with a book that takes 800 pages to move the characters 4 days and a few miles down the road.

Douglas Adams, in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy takes the piss out of the "nothing passive ever", via example.

A lot of the deal seems to be figuring out what works, what shows something that needs to be there, and whether it's actually interesting. You can have some "fluff" in a novel, so long as it's interesting.

One thing I've taken to using is unless I'm neck deep in action, the start of a chapter will often have a short "telling" transition to bring the action from where the previous chapter ended to where this one started. For instance, one of the novels I'm working on at the moment (Don't ask me why I have two novels alternating. I don't know), the first chapter ends in the middle of a conversations. The second chapter starts with a few paragraphs telling what the character does after that conversation, before his best buddy contacts him. That section didn't need more because it's the usual polite goodbyes between people who don't trust each other but are behaving, and wandering around a convention crowd. Okay, there's a little bit of sarcasm in there, but it's that kind of book.

And if I'm incoherent this early in the evening, I probably should get an early night tonight. So sayeth the resident narcoleptic.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Hitchhiker's Guide is a great example of when telling can work. I think humour often is like this - more direct from the writer to you.
You can really beat yourself up about things like this, but then you see what authors with established Names (chief marketing asset) get away with.
Balance in all things, eh. Why does the prospect of having no strict guidelines fill me with terror? Hmmn . . . deep-seated insecurity I suspect. Carlos Castenanda used to go on about 'controlled indulgence' being more difficult than abstinence, much in the similar vein I think.
I guess it comes down to trial and error really. See what works and what your critter/editor/agent neatly dissects with their scalpel and pondering this against the story.
The times I enjoy most with writing are when I just let myself go and everything just pours out, fluff and all.

Kate said...


Absolutely. Usually the best writing I do is when I let go and let it all pour out, fluff, weirdness and all. Of course, I had to go through all the painful learning parts first, to get those pesky rules internalized ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam -- well... It took me a long time to figure out I could jump over the boring stuff without showing it. Made my books very long. "He went up the stairs. The first step was smooth. The second was rough. The third had an indentation..." etc.

Chris -- Like Kate I'm guilty of having pared down my books to "only what serves the plot" -- when recoiling from error #1 -- till my books read analytical and detached. It was only with my.... counts in head ... sixth? I think so... published book, Draw One In The Dark that I learned to live in scenes that show the character but don't necessarily advance the plot.

Anonymous said...

Advancing the plot is all well and good. But since we're pretending these are real people, they do need to grocery shop, do the laundry, pay the bills . . . but unless they're picking up a vital clue when the see a suspect picking through the veggies, or having an emotional catharsis over the kool-aid stains, we don't need a lot of details.

On the other hand, we hope our readers will like our characters enough to enjoy, and think the reading time well spent, to show some details of the character's life.

::sigh:: I swear, every post I end up giving wo opposing opinions.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, you're right. There are two opposing views.

Disney said something like -- for every three laughs there should be a tear. Tolkien did it with 'down-time'. He'd have tense adventure, then the Hobbits would reach the Prancing Pony, or Lothlorien, or Rivendell.

You need that down-time for the characters and readers to catch their breath. It's a chance for character development.