Show, don’t tell. Don’t use purple prose. The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Always use active voice, never passive!
This is the kind of advice we’re always given as writers. But that kind of advice tends to come off, well, limiting. Especially when you’re trying to follow them all to the letter.
I feel like better advice to help writers understand to use these things in moderation. Otherwise, the result is excess of the reverse, which to me ends up with terribly dry writing that feels like it’s doing everything it can to dodge adverbs, telling, or, God forbid it ends up purple.
However, some of the famous writing proverbs can still be used to help out your writing. But instead of making it an ironclad rule, let’s apply it loosely, and make it flexible enough for anyone to use.
Show? Tell? You decide. But take me on a journey with you.
Honestly, I don’t think anyone can tell you exactly when you should show or tell. You’ll have unique circumstances depending on the context of what you’re writing, and no two scenes are alike. However, I think the biggest thing to remember are two things: your readers’ engagement, and pacing.
If it’s something benign, like the character pouring a bowl of cereal, you might want to brush over it just say he poured his cereal. No need to go into detail unless there’s something special about it. And I doubt you’re writing about magic cereal, so we can move on.
But if the character is learning how to use a sword, we want to know how those strokes feel, and it won’t be enough just to say it was hard for him to do. You’ll want to drag it out here, make us feel the strokes, the motions, the sweat, the determination.
However, if the character eats magic cereal before he goes sword playing, the writing is going to feel bogged down if every detail is being meticulously explained to us to the point it feels like we’re going nowhere, just to keep from “telling”.
That’s why I said the two biggest factors are reader engagement and pacing.
Think about what your reader would want to experience along with the character, and brush over the rest. You want the majority of the detailing to go to the things that matter. If you waste it on everything, nothing will feel special.
But don’t forget to keep pacing in mind. If you’re brushing over too much, the reader will read through the page too quickly. And reading too quickly often transitions to skipping over pages, which is not what you want.
You want page-turners, not page-jumpers.
So you have to decide the balance. Read over your work and be mindful to how quickly you read the page or how slow the writing feels. Only you can figure out if you need a lot of “showing” or a lot of “telling” in order to tell the story you want to tell. Writing is an art, not a science 😉
Purple prose? Rainbow prose!
I’m not exactly sure why prose with flowery description turns purple, but hey, I didn’t make the rules.
However, I feel this goes back to pacing. Use bits of heavy detailing like bright pops of color. If you use it everywhere, it’s not a pop, it’s an explosion (is Rainbow Explosion Prose a better name?). But if you balance pops of color with parts of neutral colors, you now have harmony.
If you want flowery descriptions, I say have at it. But as it is something you love, you want your readers to love it as much as you, and it should be used sparingly, with class and elegance, and on parts you really want to shine with emphasis.
So whatever color your prose is, have fun with it. Purple is my favorite color, anyway.
Passive? Active? Here’s a tip.
Again, I won’t say for sure when you should use either passive or active, however, I do feel like in general active sounds better in most cases. But, as I believe you as the writer are the best judge for usage, let me help you understand what you’re dealing with.
Generally, any time you have a past tense verb with the word “had” or “has” behind it, you’re writing in passive. A good rule to remember is if it sounds like it would be in a newspaper article, it’s probably passive.
“A man has robbed a store on Twelfth Street.”
“A man robbed a store on Twelfth street.”
The biggest disadvantage to using passive voice, in my opinion, is that it makes the action you’re describing feel like it happened a longer time ago than you may want. And it can also make the action feel distant, and less personal.
Think of it this way. You’re telling someone about something that happened. And you go, “There were a ton of ducks on the lake when we came!”
It sounds like a trip you went on last weekend, maybe last month. But if you say, “There had been a ton of ducks on the lake when we came!” It sounds like there used to be ducks there, maybe years ago. Not only that, but it feels like the statement is no longer true. That there were ducks, but now there aren’t. It almost feels like the person telling the story hadn’t even seen it for themselves, but heard of it through someone else.
So you want to be careful with passive voice because of the overall feel it can give. In some cases, you want it. For example if you are saying that there were a ton ducks a year or so ago, and now there aren’t, then you might want to use passive to tell that story.
As always, it depends on you. I just thought I’d help you see why you might want to use over the other.
Why the hate on adverbs?
The use of adverbs a lot of times also coincides with the showing and telling issue. Saying that someone ran quickly versus saying they pumped their arms and raced across the yard.
You may prefer one over the other. You may even end up rarely reaching for an adverb when you learn how to describe actions without them. Because once again, it has to do with reader engagement. This is an area where you can afford to replace one thing for the other, as the word count won’t get too fat over it.
In most cases.
However, when you come across words that don’t have a shorter equivalent, it can be difficult. What’s another word for “dance gracefully?” or “attack ferociously?”
There’s not always an easy answer, and sometimes, I don’t think you need one. Granted, the writing will slow down a little in those areas, but sometimes that’s what you want. As long as it’s used in moderation, the writing won’t feel too slow. It’ll feel like emphasis.
And equally, it’s useful to know that if you want to speed up the pacing in any given area, taking out some of the adverbs and replacing them wherever possible will definitely achieve that. Effective for fight scenes, chase scenes, anywhere that has action. And using actions without adverbs can give you the freedom to add more descriptive words now that the sentence isn’t as long (ex: “she raced across the field, her hair flying in the wind” vs. “she ran quickly across the field, her hair flying in the wind.”)
However, a sprinkling of adverbs can also be an elegant touch to a motion or action here and there, as well.
So overall, I don’t think any piece of advice should be absolute. We are another form of artists, and artists can create artwork with anything that makes a mark. As writers, our tools are words, and all of them are usable, as long as we wield them well.
However, every piece of advice is also usable. But the application is up to you 😉