Last week, I talked about State of Mind, and how it can make your prose more active, rather than passive. There’s this idea going around the writing world nowadays about “show, don’t tell” that often bothers me. We look back at authors from twenty or fifty years ago and they aren’t being forced to use all active voice, are they? Look back a hundred years or two hundred years and you find some of the most advanced vocabularies surrounded by the most passive of verb tenses.
What’s up with this?
Now, we’re being told that active is the way to go, not passive, and if you don’t… your novel isn’t a good one. You can’t write in the style of Charles Dickens anymore, or Jules Verne, because their passive tense isn’t good enough for the modern reader.
Why? Why are these styles that can paint such delightful pictures so… out of fashion?
Here’s why: the modern reader expects a moving picture to be created. Our exposure to film and to graphic novels and comic books and active-voice books have created an expectancy for action. We desire bright and vivid images, but not just still-frames. We want movement. Movement means action, and action means active voice.
Authors of two centuries ago didn’t have to rise to that occasion. They could get away with painting beautiful mosaics and tapestries that were absolutely still-frame. Nothing moved in the image (beyond the concept of movement) for three or four paragraphs while they painted it out. Sure, they later breathed it to life by setting the reader inside the tapestry and beginning the action, but they could afford to stop and paint the tapestry first.
Not so today. Today, we need to paint a dozen still-frames on the fly and present them to the reader within two pages. We need to create action and movement on every page so that they can take those still-frames and create a moving picture in their minds.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing: not at all. I think it’s fantastic that we’re given this challenge. It’s a progression of literature.
Now, however, we have to assault the challenge and overcome it. One way is State of Mind, as I talked about last week. This week, I’d like to talk about a simple concept I’ve mentioned many times before, but this time I want to talk about it in the context of active voice: the five senses.
Activity in the Senses
One of the easiest ways to paint a picture for your reader is through sight. You tell them what they can see, and they can create a picture.
Sight, however, is not the most immersive of sense. If you present your reader with dozens of pictures purely based on sight, they’ll see action, but it will be a silent film. Turns out, silent films aren’t as exciting now as they were a hundred years ago.
Therefore, we need to reach beyond sight to the other senses. Completely immersing the reader into your active picture requires all five senses.
Now, you don’t need to use each sense on every page and for every scene. Don’t do that. It will become like a checklist, and your prose will come off that way: a checklist. Instead, make yourself consciously aware of your descriptions. When was the last time you used a sense other than sight? If the scene has changed since then, it’s time to introduce a new sense. Sight can help us transition, other senses cement us in the moment. They place us in time and space in a way that sight can only suggest. Smell, for instance, is a very cementing sense. When you present us with a smell, it activates a new part of our brain, one that, if you do it right, thinks it can smell whatever it is you’re presenting.
That’s powerful and immersive.
Taste is another one, though often more difficult to apply to most situations. Food may seem the most obvious of examples where taste is useful and creating of action, but there’s also a few other ways it can be used: some odors are so strong one can almost taste them. That’s something too few authors use, in my opinion. Sometimes your mouth can taste something (such as morning breath) without there actually being anything there to taste.
What about sounds?
Sounds are always immediate. If you present us with a sound (please don’t write them out like “BANG!” or some other form... please? I mean, unless you’re writing a children’s book, that’s not gonna fly in any professional sort of work), we’ll respond immediately with an active picture in our minds.
Touch, on the other hand, can be difficult to express. Often, it requires your character touching something and describing that sensation. It’s best when the texture of the thing touched is odd and sharply distinct. Polished glass won’t create as much of a sensation in your reader as splintered woodgrain or rough-cut stone.
Where do Sense GO?
All right, we have our second tool for creating active voice… now where do we put it? If SoM is supposed to be 6-10 sentences apart through the whole novel, what about senses?
As it turns out, there’s no way to really say “this is where you put it”. It’s too fluid. Instead, take this as a general idea: when the scene changes, the senses change. When the scenes remains stagnant, so do the senses. In other words, don’t let us forget the sensations of the current scene, and don’t linger on the sensations of past scenes.
When you remain in the same stinky garbage truck for five pages, remind us every once in a while that something smells, and a variety of things smell. When the scene changes to a hospital, we won’t be smelling garbage anymore.
You don’t have to use every sense in every scene. Two or three is prime. You don’t have to keep us in the loop in every paragraph. Once a page is fine, or twice a page.
Instead, be aware of the situation, and keep your reader aware of it as well. When the scene comes alive through senses, your reader will find action.
That’s active voice. Not just some stylistic idea of active verbs and strong adjectives.
Movement. Color. Emotion. Thought. Sensation.