Passive Vs. Active Descriptions

Description is an important part of writing. It’s what allows the reader to see what you see. It enables them to imagine the setting and the characters. Done well, description will bring a narrative to life, making it a vivid and immersive experience. Done poorly, it can leave a good story to fall flat on its face.

There is no set rule on how much description should be included. The answer varies from person to person and is influenced heavily by the style and genre of the text. One idea that is gaining popularity, is that large blocks of descriptive text should be avoided (or at least used with caution). Simply dumping a long-winded paragraph of pure description on your readers can bore them, or cause them to become distanced from the characters or action.

A better approach is to weave your description into your action and general narrative. Rather than putting your character on pause so that he might describe the building he is about to enter, consider having him note its features as he walks past, or interacts with them. We’ll call these “Passive Descriptions” and “Active Descriptions”.


Passive Descriptions

A passive description is exactly that; passive. It’s where the characters and action take a back seat for a moment, to allow time for the scene to be laid out. Imagine if your story were a film. The passive description is one of those big panoramic shots that shows the whole area, but not the main characters. This can be useful in setting a scene, but it also breaks the flow of your narrative.

This technique is not inherently bad, and indeed, there are times you can use it to your advantage; either to slow down the pace, or draw attention to a particular detail. However, if you are in the midst of a high tension scene, a big panorama isn’t going to amuse your readers. In fact, they might just skip over the description to get back to the action.

Here is an example of a very basic scene, written using a passive description.

The office had polished wooden floors, with a heavy carpet placed precisely in the centre. On the carpet sat a mahogany desk, and on the desk was a laptop, some notebooks a pen and a lamp. Behind the desk stood a leather desk chair. The wallpaper was forget-me-not blue, the same color as the lampshade. On the west and south walls were wide windows, framed by heavy floor length drapes. Against the east wall stood a large bookcase, laden with leather bound tomes.

It’s not very interesting is it? Sure, you can see the room, you could probably even draw a floor plan, if I asked you to. But do you care? I doubt it.

Active Descriptions

The active description is less obvious than the Passive one. Rather than outlining the details of the setting, it focuses on the action and incorporates those details by way of concrete markers. (Concrete markers are descriptions that make use of all five senses, including smells, sounds, textures and tastes, rather than just what is visible.)

As an example, I have taken the same scene as above, but this time each describing factor is tied to one of the character’s actions. You, the reader, learn about the space he is in as he interacts with it.

John entered the office in a hurry, rounding the desk that stood in the centre. He pushed the leather chair aside, shoving it when it’s wheels dug into the thick pile of the rug. Ignoring the laptop, he scratched through the notebooks, dislodging a pen that threatened to roll onto the floor. Glancing at the window, he saw a view of the setting sun. John crossed the room to yank closed the heavy drapes, then did the same to the window behind the desk. He flicked on the lamp, its shade the same color as the forget-me-not wallpaper, and snatched up a notebook. He rifled through its pages before tossing it back with the others. John left the desk and went to the large bookcase that stood against the side wall. He scanned the spines of the books, running his thumb across the smooth leather of the tomes.


Did you notice a difference in reading the revised scene? This description shows the exact same room, but we are no longer just looking at a static image. All the same details are there, but the story doesn’t stop in order to show them to us. Instead, the reader is engaged in the events of the story, whilst also given the opportunity to build the image of the surroundings in their mind by adding key details such as colors and textures as they come up.

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