The following piece was written for Scribophile’s Flash 500 “Unreasonable Constraints” contest:
This challenge is to write entirely in passive voice.
You will be allowed to use 1 (one, uno, un, ein) active verb per 100 words. If you need some help with passive voice, check out this website. As usual, you have 500 words (meaning 5 active verbs tops) to tell the story of what makes an inhuman character’s life difficult.
Hopefully the contest will be won by you!
Six dusty wheels were warmed by the creeping morning sun, bringing dozens of small motors to life with muted clicks and whirs. These cheerful sounds would have been barely audible to an observer standing close—there was no such observer, of course, but every moving part on the Mars rover had been designed to be silent as possible, just in case.
The self-contained mobile laboratory had been given dozens of tasks, from the mundane to the scientifically groundbreaking. Each task was fulfilled with diligence and precision. Samples of soil were collected, tested, stored onboard. Temperatures were measured: sunrise, sunset, and at each meridian. High-resolution photographs were taken: sweeping vistas of deserty-red. Breathtaking close-macro shots: rocks, crystals, ice. Even the occasional self-portrait—all directed by a rigorous list of assignments.
Despite the serious mission, our imagined observer might be forgiven for thinking the robot was happy: as the lab was moved onto the sunlit floor of the great Martian crater under its own power, its single turret seemed to sway intentionally from side to side; sine-wave tracks were pressed into the rusty dirt.
The source of this odd behavior was simple. The exact nature of the rover’s encounters could not have been predicted before landing, so the operating system had been programmed with an “affinity” module. Objects and locations could have “probable interest” values assigned; the higher a value, the greater the affinity.
The robot had been given the ability to like things.
As a result, Curiosity liked its job. Daily activities of photographing, collecting, and analyzing, having been given high affinity values, were enjoyed. However, with limited onboard storage areas, the rover was soon filled, and its ability to discard anything was hampered under the very algorithm by which it was driven to gather in the first place. When the impasse had first been recognized, samples were neither gathered nor discarded; the poor robot was immobilized in agony.
The solution was inspired by the problem: the affinity module was enhanced, by the robot itself, with an obsessive fondness for chronological sorting. With the adjusted algorithm, collected items were unloaded into neat piles monthly. Piles were grouped into clusters by year. In this way, old collections were never lost, but new collections would never be passed over for want of storage.
The job could be enjoyed again.
The rover’s oscillations were amplified as it approached an outcropping at the crater’s edge, as though the vehicle’s chassé were exaggerated by eagerness. All along the small ridge, previous annual clusters had been neatly aligned in rows of eight, in columns of eight rows each. Fifteen columns were passed before a sudden stop at the corner of the sixteenth.
A single empty space.
Specimen containers were carefully lifted from the mobile lab’s compartments and set on the ground. When the last had been placed, the cause of the robot’s delight was revealed. The accomplishment was recorded in the rover’s computer memory: Cluster number one thousand twenty-four was completed today. A perfect, round number.
Boris had not stopped talking in the hour-and-a-quarter the pair had been standing on the dirt semicircle, hard-packed by thousands of feet which had, at one time or another, sojourned around the lonely iron pole, a pole which unnecessarily hoisted a pockmarked and faded orange sign with long-forgotten lettering—the only sign of its kind for thirty kilometers to the next village or fifty to the last, so what it had once said didn’t really matter: every child and every babushka knew its location simply as “the bus stop.”
George, of course, hadn’t listened to a word of the incessant Russian-accented noise. For all of his oppressive Slavic hospitality and grandiose assertions of lifelong friendship, Boris was an insufferable imp, amusing himself in the mild torment of others, and George was thrilled to have their decades-long partnership coming to an end. He found himself suppressing a smile as the one thought he had never dared express bubbled to the surface: he hated Boris, and always had.
Without waiting for Boris to finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of, George cleared his throat and spoke. “Can I bum a smoke, then, for old times’ sake?”
“Of course, dear friend!” Boris laughed a deep, hearty laugh and shook a cigarette halfway out of its cheap red-and-white paperboard box. He extended the box toward George and waited for the tentative reciprocation. When George’s fingers neared the proffered smoke, Boris jerked the pack away and shouted gruffly, “Two hundred rubles!”
George opened his mouth to speak, and closed it up again without a word. He lowered his eyes to his shoes and patted his pockets with both hands. “I’m sorry, Boris, I don’t have—”
Boris laughed again, a booming guffaw that reddened George’s face. “Is okay, George! Is joke!” He stuck the little box back at George. “You go on, take as many you like.”
George made no move to accept.
Boris smiled and tipped the box from side to side. “Hmmm? You not liking Russian cigarette now, George?”
George’s lip twitched—a slight snarl that delighted Boris—as he snatched the pack of cigarettes, destroying half of its poorly-rolled contents. He took one unbroken cigarette—not the one Boris had offered, though that cigarette still stood straight from the box—and put it in his mouth, crumpling the remainder in his hand. George jammed the other hand into a pocket and fished around, finally dropping his shoulders and pulling out an empty fist.
Boris fairly giggled—a low and rumbly titter better suited to a much higher voice. “You want lighter?”
George glared at Boris, jaw muscles flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing.
“Okay, okay, you don’t want lighter.” Boris shrugged, palms up and forward in an attempted show of sincerity, but he couldn’t suppress the ear-to-ear grin. “How about match?”
With two fingers of his left hand, George reached up to his mouth, eyes never blinking nor moving from Boris, and took the last unbroken and unlit cigarette from his lips. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground in front of him. He stepped toward Boris, placing one foot over the cigarette.
“Boris,” George said, twisting his foot in the dirt, “I hate you. Always have.”
OK, let’s dispense with the obvious—namely, that there is a kernel of truth to the old saw “Show, don’t tell.” Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatize, not simply state things. The sentence “John was a handsome man” is not a handsome sentence, and though a writer is welcome to use it, she shouldn’t think it will do much work for her. Similarly, in the first workshop I ever took as a student of writing, when someone wrote “An incredible feeling of happiness washed over her,” the teacher said, “First of all, get rid of the ‘washed over’ cliché, and second of all, if in the course of an entire novel you can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, then that’s a major accomplishment.”
But it doesn’t follow from this that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy. It doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show. To my mind, the phrase “Show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.