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Active Vs Passive Writing—‘Show,’ Don’t ‘Tell’


At every conference for children’s writers you will hear the same advice—‘show, don’t tell.’ No one likes to be told what to do. They’d rather have someone suggest what they might do. Then if they do it, it becomes their own idea or decision.

The same is true of children’s books. If the author tells the reader what’s going on, the story becomes dull. If the writer shows what’s happening, it draws the reader into the action.

So how do we ‘show’ what’s going on without ‘telling’ the reader? By using active verbs. Passive verbs lack a ‘doer.’ In an active voice, the subject is doing the action. In a passive voice, something is being done to the subject.

Passive verbs:
was, is, are, am, be, been, was, would

More ‘telling’ words:
like, as if, seemed, told, felt

Look for passive verbs in your writing. But keep in mind that there’s more to it than using or not using certain words. For example, using the word ‘was’ does not always indicate passive voice. It may just be using the past tense.

He was five years old in October. (past tense)

Read the following example of ‘was’ used in active or passive voice:

The pumpkin pie was eaten by Grandpa. (passive)
Grandpa ate the pumpkin pie. (active)

If you find that you’re using words to ‘qualify’ or ‘emphasize’ what you’re saying, you might try to find a more active way to show it instead.

Qualifiers:
really, all, some, quickly, very, so, big/little, a lot, slowly, many, cold/hot, loudly/softly

Look at the following lines:

The turkey ran out of the house really fast. (passive—he didn’t only run, he ran ‘really fast’)
The turkey zipped out of the house. (active)

We often hear that using words that end in ‘—ing’ is a form of passive writing. If you use a word that ends in ‘—ing’ with one of the ‘to be’ words (see the list of passive verbs above), there is no action. For example:

He was studying the picture. (passive)
He studied the picture. (active)

Using adverbs when writing picture books is also discouraged—‘Don’t use them!’ we are told. An adverb can be replaced with active writing.

He looked hungrily at the burgers on the plate.
He looked at the burgers on the plate. His stomach growled. (more active)

Writing for children in an active voice is always encouraged, but sometimes passive voice has a place.

Is something happening while the action is taking place? The clock was chiming might be more clear than The clock chimed if Cinderella was trying to get back to the carriage before the clock finished chiming.

For emphasis, or for poetic or dramatic effect—
‘…was coming closer down the hall’ or ‘huffing and puffing’

Stories that ‘show’ your characters and ‘show’ what’s going on, draw the reader into the story and keep them hooked. Use active verbs along with action or dialogue to accomplish this.

For a look at how well you handle ‘show don’t tell,’ take out that manuscript that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and highlight the words in your story that you find on the list of passive verbs. Then use a different color and highlight the active verbs. You could even go a step further and highlight dialogue and action with different colors.

There are so many sources on the web that explain active and passive writing better that I do here. You can find more on passive writing at these sites:

RX for Writers
Writing for Children
Writing with Style
Write Now!
Valerie Comer
Bella on line. Scroll to the bottom of her post and do a search on her site for How to Use Passive Voice Effectively.
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