Lately I was witness to an online writing class that propagated some misinformation and made my head explode. So I had to write a "rebuttal". The class was theoretically on "show versus tell" which is the writer axiom that you should "show" your reader the action or scene versus just telling them. More on that later.
So, anyway, this teacher equated telling with passive voice (NO relationship exists) and worse, equated passive voice with the use of past progressive verbs (NO relationship exists).
I was appalled because the creation and spread of "writer myths" only serves to confuse ingénue authors. It is a disservice and gives other online presenters a bad name.
So I am picking up the role of the grumpy grammarian—and this is a role to which I'm ill-suited. I'm not particularly good at this either. I mean, I've never been able to make sense of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" so who am I to set myself up as an expert?
Well, I do check and double-check my information. And I've included the references I used to write this blog. They are at the bottom.
Note: a Tell is a gambling term meaning an involuntary or unconscious gesture, expression, or indication of what someone is thinking/planning. A tell telegraphs what an opponent has or is about to do.
In this article, a Tell is the hint or shortcut way to identify something. It should not be confused with "telling" as in "Show versus Tell". If you know what I mean. J
Myth 1: Show versus Tell
Telling is bad, showing is good. Sometimes. Sometimes you need to tell when you just need to move the story along (or have length limits). Telling is to simply tell the reader what the character is feeling, i.e. she felt angry, rather than showing the reader, i.e. she screamed, stamped her foot, and threw a frying pan at his head in a burst of rage.
This has absolutely nothing to do with passive voice, verb tenses or the use of the much maligned word "was".
The Tell for Show versus Tell
Telling: Telling is almost always just an adjective or adverb, and it is a word or two long. Or a brief phrase. So it's really short. That's how you identify when you are telling and not showing.
Showing: Long, long, long. Takes at least a sentence and usually an entire paragraph to adequately show. May actually involve several paragraphs. It is how you "prove" the character is feeling/seeing/thinking something.
Telling, ex. 1
Terrified, she struggled with her assailant.
Telling, ex. 2
The garden was beautiful.
In the first sentence, you're telling us that she's terrified, but you've shown us nothing to make us feel her terror or prove that she's terrified. The writer might think that it's so obvious that she should be terrified if she's under attack that this brief description "says it all". But that's the seduction of telling and why it's so easy to tell versus show. Because it's efficient, particularly when dealing with the obvious.
This may be useful when you need to move a scene along, or when the scene only involves secondary, unimportant characters. But you can't always tell or your readers will never become engrossed enough in your characters to care about them. Your story will fall flat because you don't explore your character's views, feelings, perceptions, or surroundings.
In the second example, you're telling the reader that the garden is beautiful, but giving us no proof or indication that it is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What's in the garden that makes it beautiful?
She panted in short gasps. Her arms shook as she gripped his wrist and pushed it upward. But he was strong—stronger than her—and his blade descended, closer and closer. Fear rippled through her as beads of icy sweat rolled down her sides. Her damp hands slipped a fraction. The tip was just an inch from her face. She was going to die. She could almost feel the cold, sharp metal plunging through her vulnerable eye into her brain. She blinked as if her fragile eyelid could stop that blade. Twisting, she desperately tightened her aching, trembling muscles, using her last ounce of strength to hold him off.
And so on.
In the second example, a description of the flowers in the garden, the style of gardening, and your character's opinion of the garden—what aspects she likes, for example—would show that the garden is beautiful and make it showing instead of telling.
See how long that showing paragraph was? That's the tell for showing. You are showing the reader how the character is feeling, why she is feeling it, what she's doing, and what she is thinking.
And it has absolutely nothing to do with verb tenses or passive voice.
Myth 2: "Was" + "-ing" verb is Telling
The use of was + a verb ending in –ing has absolutely nothing to do with showing versus telling—which involves how you describe your character's emotions or paint the scene. Equating "was" + "-ing" with telling is an incredibly misleading statement and perhaps the teacher of the online writing class just got carried away. Or said something she didn't really mean. It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate varied sentences including "was" + "-ing" verb forms while showing. Ironically, it would actually be hard to incorporate "was" + "-ing" verb forms into something that would be "telling" as opposed to "showing".
She was reading a book when she was attacked.
That's actually neither showing nor telling. The showing/telling point comes when you describe her reaction to this.
Terrified, she ran away.
She heard a noise and glanced up from her book, heart pounding. A man was running toward her. Light glinted off the knife in his hand. Who? How did he get in? Moving without thinking, she threw the book at him as she scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the kitchen. If she could reach the back door, she could escape—she just had to make it make it that far. Just a few yards to the door…
Unfortunately, the online teacher also compounded her misleading statement by claiming that was + a verb ending in –ing is passive voice which it is not. It is a progressive form of a verb showing a continuing action (versus an action which stopped already). As in the above example (which is showing) where: A man was running toward her.
And it isn't the verb form that identifies passive voice.
In fact, was + a verb ending in –ing is almost never passive. The only way to make it passive is to add the word "being" in between was and the verb as in: She was being hit.
Myth 3: Passive Voice and "Was" + Verb Ending in "-ing"
Definition: "Was" + verb ending in "-ing" is past progressive. Past progressive means the action is continuing. This verb form is often used to indicate some continuing action that occurs concurrent with some other action, i.e. She was thinking of work when the bus hit her. That sentence is active, not passive. The action of thinking was underway, continuing and concurrent with the action of the bus hitting her.
To break it down:
She was thinking of work when the bus hit her.
Active voice for both clauses: "She was thinking" and the adverbial clause "when the bus hit her".
"She" is taking the action of "thinking".
In the adverbial clause, the "bus" is taking the action of "hitting" the object of the action, "her".
She was thinking of work when she was hit by the bus.
This complex sentence has an active component and a passive adverbial clause.
Active clause: "She" is taking the action of "thinking".
Passive adverbial clause: "She" is both the subject and the object of the action. The action is "hit" and the doer of the action is the "bus". But the "bus" is not the subject. "She" is the subject. So the recipient (object) of the action is also the subject. That is what makes it passive.
Note: in that sentence you probably want the passive construction to keep the focus of the reader on the woman, rather than switching focus to the bus. Who cares about the bus except in the aspect of what it did to the woman?
And "was" + "-ing" verbs are not and will never be tells for telling versus showing. Past progressive is related to how you construct your sentence, not what your sentence is describing. Showing versus telling is about what your sentences are describing, not how the sentences are constructed.
Myth 4: Passive Voice and "Was"
Definition: Passive voice is where the subject of the sentence is the recipient (object) of the action, rather than the doer of the action. It has to do with the subject/object of the verb, not the particular verb form used. "Was" is much maligned. Writers need to get over the idea that using "was" is bad or always indicative of passive voice.
And get over the idea that passive voice is always bad while active is good. This is only sometimes true. Sometimes you need passive voice to retain the focus on the subject (i.e. your character) rather than changing the focus to an unimportant object. However, the reasons to use passive voice aren't the subject of this blog.
The Tell for Passive Voice
Passive Voice: Passive is indicated by the subject. Is the subject doing the action or the recipient (object) of the action?
Another way to look at it
She was hitting the bus. This is active. It is also past progressive.
And most likely, no one got hurt. The object of the action is the bus.
She was hit by the bus. This is passive. It is past and passive. And it is this form that gives "was" a bad rap, and why so many people assume that when you see "was" it is passive. But as you can see, "was" isn't a good tell, because the real tell is if the subject is also the object of the action. The subject and the object of the action are both the woman.
You'll notice that in order to make it passive, you have to remove the –ing verb and replace it. Hinting that "was" + "-ing" is rarely a passive construction.
I've written previous blogs about passive, so I won't go further into it at this point.
And, as promised, here are the references I used in writing this blog:
"Instant English Handbook" by Madeline Semmelmeyer and Donald Bolander
"Harbrace College Handbook" by John Hodges and Mary Whitten
"Plain English Handbook" by J. Martyn Walsh and Anna Kathleen Walsh *This is my favorite
"Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood
Good luck and don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Not even me. J