I’m going to be away from the PC today, so I won’t check email until 5-ish. I’m hoping our regulars (both the bloggers and the commenters) will address the topic and examples. And *please* feel free to rework any of mine to make them better, or to offer examples you have seen in writing (yours, mine, other’s) and how you would write them differently.
The two *most* common errors in any writer’s work are:
1. telling instead of showing and
2. passive writing.
Sometimes, it’s almost invisible to us, an insidious way of writing that creeps up and takes over and suddenly it’s everywhere, in every paragraph, in every chapter. And rewriting to get rid of it is a PITA. On a good day, we’ll say, “I’d never do that. I don’t have to look for it.” On a bad day, we reread our work and, dang if it isn’t there.
Mind you, there *are* times for the passive voice and for telling. Times when nothing else will work. But when we get into patterns, then it becomes a crutch. And crutches are weak writing, amateurish writing, and they can get our work canned. So I thought I’d toss in a few examples I’ve seen recently and ways around them, some doing double duty for scene anchoring, character development, or some other necessary device. I’m going to give the examples, and possible rewrites, and offer some explanations of what the changes accomplished, that the original didn’t.
A. She felt tears slide down her face.
- Tears slid down her face. (Active.)
- Tears burned a hot trail down her chapped face. (Emotional reaction used to remind reader of previous injury or previous tears.)
- She didn’t know she was crying until tears dripped onto the backs of her hands and spattered onto the table. (Character development. Less showing, but more effective use of the more passive phrasing.)
B. He spit out the blood and told him to go to hell. (This also has pronoun problems.)
- Charles spit blood and a tooth, aiming for the sergeant. They fell short and Charles laughed, the sound breathy and defeated. “Go to hell.” (Active. Characterization and/or development.)
- Charles choked on his own blood. He coughed and spit, managing a breath. “Go to hell,” he said. And his head snapped back from the force of the blow. (Active voice, characterization, followed by passive voice to indicate a change of mental status. Yes, we could have seen that from the original, but the writer didn’t make use of it. It was a lost opportunity.)
- Charles spat his blood to the floor and whispered, “Go to hell.” And braced himself for the next blow. (Ditto on voice and characterization.)
C. He shot her a wild, hostile look.
- Mike slung his hair out of his eyes and spotted her across the dim room. He bared his teeth and growled, half wild with fury. (Scene setting or anchoring, more active voice, more showing.)
- As if he felt her eyes on him, Mike looked up. Blinked hard, once. And hissed with rage. (Characterization, development, and active voice, despite the use of the words *he felt*.)
- His eyes bored into her, promising retribution. Promising justice long delayed. Promising her death. (Ditto, and it has a bit of poetry in the build up, which I like.)
D. Her body danced, sweating in the heat until exhaustion claimed her in late afternoon. When she fell to the floor. (The writer was trying to use the passive voice, unusual sentence structure, and punctuation to show the character’s exhaustion. The *When she fell…* only became confusing.)
- Emily danced, her toes in agony, bleeding through the pale pink silk of her slippers. The heat of day built, the sun punishing, the air still and heavy with the promise of rain or the threat of storm. Her steps faltered. She miss-timed a half-turn. Sucking in a breath, she forced her body to search for the rhythm. And stumbled. She put out her arms to find her balance. Her knee gave way. The floor slapped her like a huge hand. (Setting, scene anchoring, characterization.)
- Emily’s feet moved, the pacing and rhythm all muscle memory, requiring no thought, no planning, only the joy of the dance itself. The drugs that surfed through her system, sparking like wildfire, gave her power and endurance. And forgetfulness. The sun moved across the wide windows as she danced to music only she could hear, shadows sliding from horizon to horizon. And when she finally fell, drained, dehydrated, she was near death, quivering and helpless and in agony. (Altered mental status is a good use for the passive voice. Scene setting and time transition.)
E. Rachel put up her clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. She turned off the TV, and grabbed her purse and keys. It was time for a change. (The telling and the short choppy transition of the emotional change are jarring.)
- Rachel dropped the stack of clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. Her eyes stared back her, so like her mother’s eyes. Her mother who had died broke, but surrounded by the love of family. Unlike Betty, who was rich, but sad and alone. She sighed, knowing that she was going to regret this, and reached for her keys. (Character development and showing.)
- Rachel dropped the stack of clothes and stared into the bathroom mirror. “So who am I?” she asked. Her eyes stared back her, so like her sister’s eyes, her sister who had died broke, alone, in some back alley. Just like Betty, unless someone stepped in to help. Rachel reached for her keys, wanting to stay safe, wanting to mind her own business, wanting to remain behind the locked, bolted doors, in her sanctuary. And knowing that this time she wouldn’t. The keys were cold, the brass sharp and cutting. She wasn’t staying safe this time, while someone else suffered or died. This time, she was going into harm’s way. (Character development and showing.)