Jun 12

Passive Detail and Active Detail in your Writing

Passive Detail and Active Detail in your Writing


Task 1
Before looking at the information on ‘Passive Detail and Active Detail in your Writing’ ask the members of the group to write a short passage, in third person narrative, in which someone is afraid, in danger or confronted by a phobia.
(10-15 minutes)

Share and discuss. Compare the imagery, descriptive voice, any use of techniques such as ‘close first person’ sentence length and so on. How did members select background and choose detail to create atmosphere in their pieces?

Read the handout:


When we read the setting of a piece, the description of the background, we do not usually dissect it but take for granted the artifice that goes into bringing the scene to life.
The eye of the narrator is not ‘a camera’, just capturing in description a static image of the scene. What is included is carefully selected and blended to create a dynamic picture, the atmosphere, time and place, mood and emotion; a ‘reality’ that we do not question as readers.

One of the skills of doing all this well is to combine two different kinds of detail; passive detail, that which is there, habitually in the background before and after our scene takes place, or is so typical of the setting that we imagine it always being there, and active detail which is directly relevant to the action or the ‘now’..

Imagine a scene in which someone is running, gasping with exertion, in gloomy evening light, through a depressing slum area. Perhaps he needs to reach a railway station or a port in time to catch someone that he must reach before they disappear on a train or boat; or to get there in time to make a vital journey themselves; perhaps he is being pursued or escaping danger. The description of the flight and the setting may include the rust-streaked, garish signs of the closed up shops, dingy offices with dark windows like black, unseeing eyes and doors with faded, peeling paint. It may include the uneven cobbles, painful through the thin soles of the runner’s shoes, the labyrinthine twists and turns of the narrow streets in which the protagonist feels increasingly lost and hopeless. It may also include the fitful wind that blows dust in his eyes and tangles a damp, crumpled, day-old copy of ‘La Voz’ around his legs as he runs. He may pass a beggar huddled in a doorway, surrounded by old bags and wrapped in a dirty blanket, who barely raises his head to register his passage, devoid of curiosity about the runner, absorbed in his own plight. There may be a plump woman in a purple gown watching from a window, exotic and incongruous, in her finery. The bell of a church in the distance may begin to sound its doleful, single note calling to the indifferent populous who have long since ceased to hope for redemption from above or succour from a god who does not appear to heed their fate, and incidentally suggesting to the reader that a certain hour has arrived, maybe the hour at which the train leaves, or the rendezvous expires.

How much of this detail would our desperate runner consciously notice? What does it add to the narrative?
It is a bit more atmospheric than, ‘ He ran as fast as he could, through the narrow streets, his breath coming in ragged gasps and the blood pumping in his ears.’
There is contrast, between the urgency of the runner and the despondency of the beggar, the dingy streets and the exotic woman, who is she, what is she doing there? Peripherally we may wonder about them or about why the area has become so run-down and depressed but mostly their presence emphasises the oblivious flight of the runner.
The shops, the windows, the cobbles, they are always there. The gusts of wind, the flapping newspaper, the woman in the window are there ‘now’ as are the beggar and the bell which may be regular features of this setting but dynamic, not permanent and static. There are various time signatures, the slow decay of the area and frantic running of the character, with other things, normal things like the church bell, the litter and dust blowing in the street going on as usual, perhaps making the characters fears and panic even more dramatic.
This blending of different kinds of detail is not a new technique, there have always been characters doing something while something else was happening. In the Iliad (Book 22) Hector’s wife is at home preparing hot water for his bath though he has in fact died moments before.
Deliberate blending of the normal and the extreme can be used to add drama and/or pathos: In Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ a British soldier retreating towards Dunkirk, through chaos and death, sees a barge going by: ‘Behind him, ten miles away Dunkirk burned. Ahead, in the prow two boys were bending over an upturned bike, mending a puncture perhaps’.
The scene does not have to include fear or danger for this to work. It may just be that someone is passing through an area for the first time, walking or in a vehicle, and the habitual detail and dynamic detail is used to give greater reality than a static picture.


Task 2

Now write a passage that introduces a character or a scene, opens a story or a chapter, trying to incorporate ideas from today’s reading and discussions. You may choose your own or use one of the following examples:

  • A candidate is on the way to an interview for a job which s/he is desperate to get.
  • A young mum’s car breaks down as she is on her way to collect her two small children from school. She cannot get a signal on her mobile and must get to the school quickly without her car.
  • A man feels impatient and frustrated as he is forced by circumstances to travel by train to a favourite uncle’s funeral.
  • After waiting for a while for a girl he has just met, a young man realises he is in the wrong place for his date. He does not yet have her mobile number and sets off to the correct location hoping she is still there.


Share and discuss and compare the two pieces in light of the reading and discussion today.


Category:Group Session. Tags:Story telling,Description,Observation.

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