The Difference between Active and Passive Description
Hi, out there, if there's anyone there,
I got an email from Karen asking the difference between active and passive description. Here's what I replied.
What you are doing is absolutely right. Frankly, your own sentence is much better than the other writer's. What you're doiong, by rewriting someone else's work the way you think it would work better, is looking for is your own voice. I think you're finding it.
You say you feel as if it ought to be written in the third person (basically, you say that, by your own changes.) I would say that's a good choice for most writers, especially for the first twenty years or so. (*grin*).
Active description is using description within an action scene. So, for instance, if you want to get information across about the kind of place where the character's being beaten up, you'd focus on what in the environment the character is looking at, trying to keep a part of his or her mind away from what's happening to him/her. Maybe the narrator would have his hands tied to his feet backwards, and scrabbling not to fall over, he'd feel a nail that is very loose in a stack of lumber behind him. This kind of thing tells the reader a lot about the kind of place the story is set in, without needing more than, say, one sentence to start with of description before being captured. That's active description. Passive description is paragraphs and paragraphs of adjectives telling, not showing, the reader what the place is like.
If you can imagine putting yourself into the position and mind of the hero, you can simply ask yourself what he or she would notice and why, and if it can be useful during action. If not, you still need something about where this scene is occurring,and so maybe you can use dialog (e.g. "I'm not going in there," she told him sharply. "If the floor is as rotten as the roof, we'll end up in the cellar." Something like that. Also, setting isn't just where a scene is happening, it's also the kind of people, and what they do, in a place. If the character notices that everyone is avoiding her, she will put her own spin on it, and depending on how you've made the reader feel about her, the readers will think of this place as being full of mean snobs, etc. Think the Stepford Wives, and how the new wife feels about them. All of this is active description. It's letting us see, instead of telling us too much and too often (which is passive description). Seeing, feeling, thinking, talking, trying to use one's environment to act, all of these things are part of active description. The author telling us too much, well, it can be done well (think Charles Dickens), but really, I think it's best to keep telling to a minimum (while still remembering that the reader must have a sense of place) and use showing instead, if you can. You can't, always. When there is no other way to describe a place except to describe it, keep it down to a sentence that really works. Maybe focus on just one thing in the room that really tells us about the woman sitting in her rocker and being totally silent. You can describe a whole room just be describing a focal point in it. That kind of description, while passive, is still good, because it doesn't overload the reader. It's important, when you're writing a story to "leave out the parts that people skip, while reading it." I think it was Hemingway who said that.
I'll post this on my blog so that if anyone is still checking they can learn from your question here.
Keep working. It sounds like all the right things are happening for you.