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Passive Storytelling: Your Worst Enemy

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Intro Edit

When I first started patrolling quality on this site, I noticed something weird. There were a lot of bad stories, but they were bad in a way that I had never seen before. I kept thinking, "Why are they writing this way? Why are they making these choices?"

It was awhile before I put it together. These stories were written by people who weren't readers. These fundamental flaws in storytelling and style were so strange to me because it's just not how people write. It's like trying to draw a person based only on seeing their shadow. You have any idea of what it's supposed to be, but that's it. An avid reader is not automatically a good writer, but they do know the basics of how to do things.

These things that jumped out at me, I kept noticing them. They're so common, I gave the style a name: passive writing (Don't confuse this with "passive voice" which is an actual thing). It's so common that I've found myself trying to help people with it a lot. So, I think it's time that I make a blog explaining what it is and how to avoid it.


Passive Writing: An Explanation Accompanied by a GIF of a Clown Drinking Liquor Edit

Think about your favorite movie. Now, go to wikipedia and read the plot summary for that movie.

Note: If your favorite movie is the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, "Shakes the Clown" (1991), wikipedia does not have a plot summary.

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It's no where near as good, is it? Now, think about why. Well, all it is is plot. There's no extra detail, there's no dialogue, there's nothing that makes you feel anything, if there's any description it's very brief. There's no flow, it reads like bullet points for a story. There's probably characters missing.

This is what a lot of stories are like. They're actually just summaries of stories. They're too quick and they have no substance. A well written story is like that movie where it's full of detail and it engages you.

So, what are the big steps to avoiding this?


Start With An Action Edit

Too, too, too many stories start with an introduction. The most egregious are, "Hi, I'm Generic Character and I'm dumbteen-years-old," but you'll also get things like, "I don't have much time, they're out to get me!" or "Don't read this story!" or "This is true! I know you won't believe me because-" and stuff like that. Stuff that isn't story. This is a good sign that a story will be passively written.

Instead start with someone doing something. It doesn't need to be exciting or thrilling or evil, just as long as it's an action. Have your character leaving the house or cooking a meal or waking up.
000 011 561 300x300 cambio EmilyOsment

Please don't write a story where your character has a live chat with Emily Osment on Monday, July 11th at 3:30 PM PST/ 6:30 PM EST, because I'm already writing that story. IT'S CALLED MY LIFE.

Whatever. It could even be thinking, as long as it's a thought not directed at the audience.

Once you do that, DON'T circle back around and do an intro. Keep going. Anything that needs to be in that intro, just work it into the story. Do it naturally. Let us find out as the character finds out.


Write Out the Dialogue Edit

This is another thing I see all the time and I never understand it. People will do things like:

I got home late. My mom told me to go to my room. I told her to be quiet and went to the kitchen.

Why gloss over the conversation? Why sum it up? What is gained? Nothing. The alternative gives your characters a voice, we see how they talk. You can describe the tone, you can show us how the conversations makes people feel, how they react physically. It's more engaging to read dialogue. When it's like this, it's very flat, it just lies there.

What's worse is when people go even more generic:

My dad yelled at me.

I shouted at him.

Or, one of my favorite examples: Jim made another snarky comment at what Appy had said.

What are these people actually saying? We have no clue. None. That's not good. We need to know what people are saying. This is especially true if there's some kind of adjective attached. Snarky. Threatening. Funny. Stupid. I guess we'll take the writer's word for it that Jim made a snarky comment. That's way easier than actually coming up with something funny. I'll kind of get into this later, but you can never tell someone, "Hey, this person said something scary." It doesn't work like that. You have to show us that dialogue.
Jackyl

Your characters need to be more like The Talking Heads and less like MUMford and Sons. (pictured: Jackyl)

Not only is writing out dialogue more engaging and fleshed out your writing, but it slows you down and it anchors you in the scene. You won't be able to just zip past it. At the very least, you will almost always have to do some light scene setting and transition your character in and out of the situation.

There are exceptions! Minor interactions with inconsequential characters, such as:

The nurse told me which room my dad was in.

That nurse doesn't matter, neither does the room number. It's okay to glide over it. Sometimes if one character is telling another character a kind of expository bit of information. You can sum that up if you can't write it in an engaging way. Or, if it doesn't make sense to have verbatim dialogue in your story. There's parts of Happy Appy where the main character is recalling and writing paragraphs of conversations he's had with people during what are supposed to be intense moments. That's some incredible recall. Doesn't really make sense.

It's a feel thing that you need to develop. I would recommending erring on the side of always writing out the dialogue (again, unless it doesn't make sense), but if you feel like it can be skipped you can do that.

Do You Want to Build a Flow, Man? (Yes, You Do) Edit

Still trying to figure out how to explain this.

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE IN WRITINGEdit

SHOW, DON'T TELL

Seriously, this needs to be its own blog, because it is the most important rule. Show, don't tell. It does the three important things: engages the reader, slows your writing and anchors you in the scene. If you're dumb you might be thinking, "Uh, Guy, it's writing, I can't show anything."

You're stupid. Showing is describing something and letting the reader put together what's going on. Telling is when you just say what's going on.

Telling is saying, "I'm angry." Showing is writing out what it feels like to be angry or how people act or look when they're angry.

It might not sound like a big deal, but this is the real secret. When you go deeper, it's a lot more satisfying to read. This is especially important the more abstract a concept is. What is crazy? It means different things to different people. So, show us that a person is crazy. Show us what got them there. Show us how the feel.

As a character moves through the world you're trying to build, describe their thoughts and feelings and actions. This will also help you with your transitions and flow.

It's very difficult to write passively and follow this rule. It's the opposite of passive writing.


Is Passive Writing Always Bad? Edit

No.

It's hard to explain when it's best to not write in an active style, because they're kind of rare. Most stories should be actively written. Generally, if there's a main character, it should be actively written.

If it's kind of a broad topic, passive writing best. For example, Stone Chambers is great. It benefits from reading like a summary of a topic. However, if you were to take one of those individual anecdotes and make that the focus, it should be active writing.

A lot of stuff that Litter Bot reads (specifically, the ones read in the robot voice) are things that work well with a passive style.

And, I'll finish this later, but these are the big points.

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