Show Don’t Tell
One way to make your work fascinating is to use the active rather than the passive voice.
Passive designates a form of the verb by which the verbal action is attributed to the person or thing to whom it is actually directed: i.e. the logical object is the grammatical subject. E.g. He was seen by us. Passive. The opposite of active. Active: We saw him.
In a grammatically active construction, the subject is performing the action.
eg Jack ate the chocolate. (Jack is the subject, he’s performing the action, the chocolate is the object.)
At the beginning of a play the dramatist is often committed to giving a certain amount of essential information about the plot and events which are to come. He may also have to give information about what has ‘already happened’. All this comes under the heading of exposition. A skilful dramatist is able to introduce material without holding up the action of the play and with recourse to the obvious devices of narrative.
Exposition is also a subject which other fiction writers need to consider. A writer might do well to remember that in Writing Circles, was, were, had, feel, felt and feeling are often considered to be passive words which tell instead of showing. A writer should also remember that modern editors and publishers tend to shy away from exposition.
I could have begun my published novel, Tangled Hearts, like this:
Richelda Shaw was in her nursery when Elsie, her mother’s maid, told her that her father had summoned her. After she had delivered the message, Elsie had followed her to the great hall where her father was waiting.
This tells my reader what happened but is not interesting.
Instead, I began.
“Richelda Shaw stood silent in her nursery while thunder pealed outside the ancient manor house and an even fiercer storm raged deep within. She pressed her hands to her ears and, eyes closed, remained as motionless as the marble statues in the orangery.
‘Nine years old and you’ve not yet learned to be neat!’ Elsie, her mother’s personal maid, pulled Richelda’s hands from her ears. ‘Come, your father’s waiting for you.’
Richelda’s hands trembled. What was wrong? Until now Father’s short visits from France meant gifts and laughter. This one made Mother cry while the servants spoke in hushed tones.
Followed by Elsie, Richelda hurried down the broad oak stairs. For a moment, she paused to admire the lilies of the valley in a Delft bowl. Only yesterday, she picked the flowers to welcome Father home. After she had arranged them with tender care, she placed them on a chest, which stood beneath a pair of crossed broadswords on the wall above.
Elsie opened the massive door of the great hall where Father stood to one side of the enormous hearth.
This shows the heroine acting in a way consistent with her situation, instead of telling the reader about it.
However, as for ‘telling’ being wrong, it is not. Was, were, had, feel, felt and feeling are part of the English language and if I showed every single event in a novel it would be too long for publication.
It is how I use was, were, had, feel, felt and feeling which matters, not whether or not I use them.
I need the skill to decide when telling is too much and when I should stop telling and start showing.
In Tangled Hearts, I could have written the following to tell my reader that Chesney, the hero, is handsome:-
“Chesney had the classical features of Adonis. He was tall, had perfect proportions and was in good health.”
Instead I wrote:-
“…‘Who is that Adonis?’ A high-pitched female voice interrupted Chesney’s thoughts.
Chesney looked round and saw a powdered and patched lady with rouged cheeks staring at him.
‘I don’t know, I think he’s a newcomer to town,’ her companion, a younger lady said in an equally strident tone.
Unaffected by their comments he laughed. Since his youth women remarked on his height and his perfect proportions. He did not consider himself vain, but unlike some members of his gentlemen’s club, who took little exercise and overate, he fenced, hunted and rode to keep his body fit.
The older lady inclined her head, the younger one winked before they went about their business.”
Of course introspection is a form of telling but it is effective and reveals the character.
In Tangled Hearts it was not enough to tell my reader that Chesney is brave. I needed to show him in action.
“Chesney rushed to the cottage. ‘Keep back, Richelda,’ he shouted, ‘the thatch will ignite like tinder.’
Taking no heed of his instructions, she ran after him and followed him down the short corridor to the kitchen where smoke poured from beneath the door. ‘I think Elsie is in there,’ Richelda screamed above the roar of the fire.
Every trace of an indolent nobleman vanished. Chesney snatched off his periwig, wrenched off his coat and swathed it round his head.
‘Go outside! Your clothes will burn like kindling.’ He disappeared into the kitchen.”
I believe that I must strive to grab my reader’s attention from the first line to the last, and that passive writing – or telling – weakens the prose.
When I revise my work I use the search and find facility on the computer to highlight the words which tell and decide whether or not I can improve the text.
To be a writer not only do I need to be an artist, I also need to craft my work. Words are the tools which I use to write a page turner for my readers.
Chesney lived in France with his father etc., is exposition in conversation. “Do you know I lived in France at the court of James II in St Germaine etc.,” is description.
A flashback reveals something that occurred in the past as though it occurs in the present.
Even if the reader needs to know about my character’s past I am cautious as to how I reveal it.
Frequently, flashbacks are often badly written and they jerk the reader from the present to the past.
The knack is to slip in essential facts without disrupting the story - memory of something that happened in the past, the reply to a question, a letter or an entry in a diary
Tangled Hearts is set in England in 1702 at the beginning of Queen Anne’s reign. In order to avoid flashbacks full of historical detail to I began with Author’s Notes.
“When the outwardly Protestant Charles II died in 1685, he left a country torn by religious controversy but no legitimate children. The throne passed to his Catholic brother James.
It was an anxious time for the people, whose fears increased when James II, became so unpopular that he was forced into exile. In 1688, James’s Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, became the new king and queen of England.
Some English Protestants, who had sworn allegiance to James II, refused to take a new oath of allegiance to William and Mary and joined him in France.
When James’s younger daughter, Anne, inherited the throne in 1702, many Protestant exiles returned to England. Others declared themselves Jacobites and supporters of James II son, James III, by his second wife, Mary of Modena, and stayed abroad. They believed James III should be king.”
In my rough draft of Tangled Hearts the scene in the manor house when my heroine, Richelda, is a child, (quoted above) was a flashback. When I revised the novel I realised it was too long so I scrapped it and began with a prologue that contained the essential information.
Words are a writer’s tools. Avoid dull narrative, boring flashbacks and unnecessary exposition. Write stylishly. Words should sparkle and grip the reader.