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Interiority vs. Telling

This question came to me from Janelle months ago. Now I wanted to get right into it:

Is there really a difference between telling (vs. showing) and internal monologue that states how someone is feeling? Isn’t saying something like, “The way she tapped her clipboard made me nervous,” actually telling? If so, is it acceptable to do that in YA as long as you don’t go overboard, making sure you’re using a variety of techniques to get the character’s reaction across throughout a story, rather than always stating the emotion?

My critique partners (whom I love and trust) are telling me at certain points in my novel that they need to know more about what my MC is feeling. I thought I was showing it already with action & dialogue responses, but it doesn’t seem to be enough; however, I’m terrified to make the dreaded mistake of telling when I should be showing. I’m hoping you can help solidify this very blurry line for me.

This is a really tough line to draw and, honestly, I can’t exactly define the difference between good and bad telling (an earlier attempt, by one of my readers, and a good one, is here and was linked in Monday’s post, too).

Interiority is defined as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation. It is accomplished in either first or close third person by letting us into the character’s head (it can also be accomplished in omniscient third, where we have access to the heads of many characters, but omniscient third is really hard to pull off well).

The more I think about Good Telling vs. Bad Telling and how it plays in concert with Showing, the more I think that it’s a matter of context. Like, if you’ve done your job well, you’ll know exactly when to use Good Telling to good effect. If we know what is going on in a scene and what the characters want in relationship to one another, the subtext of each scene will be easy to understand and you free yourself up to play a lot with your character’s interiority.

In terms of interiority, I am always begging writers for more interiority, and less Bad Telling, and less Physical Telling (which we will get into next week and which I do admit to using once in my rewritten examples below). But I think for writers unused to writing good interiority, you can cross the line over to telling every once in a while and we won’t really notice it that much or fault you. It’s when interiority is missing that telling becomes a problem. One of my most frequent comments on manuscripts is highlighting a piece of telling and writing “Interiority instead.” I harp mercilessly on all of my clients to include more interiority (clients who read the blog: feel free to chime in and confirm, hehe). What does that look like?

Someone in the comments asked me to rewrite Monday’s examples with Good Telling and Showing. It would depend a lot on context. And what we’ve already established about the characters. Ideally, when you come to each of those lines, you already know what the situation is and who the characters are, so you’d know more or less how they’re reacting to something or what kind of scene they’re in.

With the king example (I never defined him as a king when originally writing, he became one in my head and in the second half of the post), you could do something like the following. Keep in mind that I can’t indent on the blog, so there are no tabs to delineate dialogue or new paragraphs.

The new jester took a spin around the royal feast table on his unicycle. New jester, yeah, but same old tricks, thought the king. This was a disappointing opening night for the newly appointed clown, and on the king’s birthday, no less. The jester careened around a corner and aimed himself for the throne, a deranged smile on his face. Only then did the king see the banana creme pie in the Jester’s hand, and how it seemed pointed right for him.
“Happy Birthday, Your Highness!” the jester cried, and let the pie fly.
The king opened his jaw in horror at the realization of what was happening, but, alas, too late. He gasped and sputtered on a mouthful of whipped cream. A squishy explosion, then…silence.
The queen fainted from her chair with a thud. From what the king could see through the mask of oozing custard on his face, the courtiers were frozen, some mid-bite, gaping at him.
A dollop of pie fell onto the king’s brand new birthday jacket. His hands shook with rage. The Jester must’ve realized he’d gone too far, because he hopped off his unicycle immediately dove under the brocade table cloth.
“Well, I never!” the monarch shouted. “You have gone too far!”

I’m trying to give us some context for the situation. And there are some telling moments, like the shaking hands, the jaw dropping, the boredom with the new jester, that it’s the king’s birthday (which we would already know if we were reading this as a scene in a chapter), etc. But I’ve also added some interiority: his thoughts, the realization of his “birthday surprise,” his interpretation of why the jester hides, etc. I think this is a more fleshed out version of the scene with much more showing and interiority than blatant telling.

With the second example, where I’m trying to convey awkwardness and tension, you could do this:

I haven’t seen Sam since last summer. Since the accident. Since I begged Mom and Dad to move us away but could never bring myself to say exactly why. There’s nothing worse than this. He knows I ran away that June, that I begged to switch schools, that I did everything to get away from him. Now he’ll know something else: the money and my parents’ patience ran out and I’m back.
If all goes according to plan, he won’t recognize me. If all goes according to plan
The bell rings and I’m still not to homeroom. What a great way to start my first day back in this hellhole. The classroom’s up ahead. My steps are too loud in the hall, my hand too sweaty on the doorknob, the hinges too loud as I push the door open.
Thirty pairs of eyeballs swivel lazily toward me. The teacher frowns and glances at his clipboard. I want to slip into a seat, any seat, and disappear, except…
Oh god. There’s only one left.
It’s next to Sam.
He looks at me for only a split second; it’s a hazy half-look that gives me a pang of hope. Maybe all the weight I lost will camouflage me. Maybe, to him, I’m just another beanpole kid pushing into homeroom. Then he looks back at me, his eyes narrow.
I’m finished. Just like that.
He knows exactly who I am.

Now, you’ll notice that my examples of Good Telling and Interiority are muuuuch loooonger than my examples of Bad Telling from Monday. This is on purpose. I am trying to flesh out the situation and the characters involved. Once we know those, we are much more likely to be able to plug into moments of good, constructive telling. Interiority also adds bulk, but I hope you can tell here that this kind of padding isn’t bad. It conveys tension, it reveals character, it defines relationships, and it helps the reader stay grounded in the character as we move forward with plot.

Telling and interiority are probably some of the hardest higher-order writing things to nail (along with character and voice), so these posts are never going to be definitive. They will, however, try and introduce these concepts and get you thinking about them.

The above are probably not the most well-written examples, but I am doing cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America (I’m an agent at the CIA…get it?!?!?!?!) this week, and I have about half an hour after class (Italian cheese tasting…oh, woe is me!) and dinner as I write this to really get my thoughts down. I will keep thinking in this vein and hope to have more on telling and showing for you next week, including a post on Physical Telling.

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  1. Melissa’s avatar

    After your last post, I went back through my WIP with a very beady eye and rewrote for interiority where I heard myself working too hard to convey something without “telling.” I think it reads so much better now, and it actually felt way less laborious to write. Thanks for the post! (BTW, so jealous of your classes at the CIA)

  2. Davy DeGreeff’s avatar

    These posts are incredibly interesting, and helpful. For such a cornerstone of good writing, the ol’ show-don’t-tell can be tough to define at times, so I’m loving these pointers. Thanks Mary!

  3. Emy Shin’s avatar

    As a new writer, I have a lot of problems differentiating between interiority and telling — and this post with its examples is just perfect. Thanks so much!

  4. Nella’s avatar

    Thank you for making it clear.

    Haha when my friend got accepted in CIA, we always joked she was a spy/chef.

  5. amychristineparker’s avatar

    I am so in love with these last two posts. Such a tough topic to tackle well and you pulled it off. I think you have to kind of try to get your reader as close to inside the skin of the character as possible so that they cringe when the character cringes-feeleverything with them. You’re shooting for a “Neverending Story” experience in every scene-the character and scene seem so real that they just might pull you onto the page with them. Interiority is the only way to succeed at this. Funny how I can know this in my head and still screw it up on paper! Your post is such a great reminder.

  6. Krista V.’s avatar

    Another awesome, awesome post, Mary. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and thank you, Janelle, for asking the question.

    I have the exact same problem: I’m terrified of telling too much, so I don’t always deliver enough interiority, and my beta readers are always bringing it up. I’ve always thought of it as telling; I like the term interiority much better.

  7. Rose Green’s avatar

    CIA agent–ha! :)

    This is a great post. I know I hesitate to write out character thoughts/interior monologue sometimes because I don’t want to commit the sin of Tellling. It’s freeing to hear that it’s not only okay but desirable to include my characters’ inner commentary. It feels more natural.

  8. Angela Felsted’s avatar

    Love this post! You just summed up what it took me over two years of constant stress to figure out.

  9. Melissa K’s avatar

    An agent at the CIA…heh heh.

    Mary, I’m so glad you keep revisiting this issue. I love the way you think about craft. I am once again returning to my manuscript to dig deeper.

    Plus, I admit, I feel like a rock star every time you link back to that essay I wrote on Good Telling vs. Bad Telling.

  10. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    Awaiting the “interiority instead” note. . . curious to know where it will pop up and how many times. . .

    Also curious to know which Italian cheese was 1) the best and 2) you’d never had before.

  11. Kathryn’s avatar

    This is also something I struggle with, so I’m glad to hear I’m not alone with this issue! Learning by example always helps me, and Sara Zarr is the Queen of Internal Dialogue.

  12. Naomi’s avatar

    Oh so good Mary. Your blog is like a master’s course all in itself. I’ve learned a heap from you :) After reading this post it makes me hopeful that I’ve come further in my writing…yay!

  13. Janelle’s avatar

    I know you said you can’t exactly define the difference, Mary, but your explanation plus the examples absolutely make it clearer. The parts about context lending itself to Good Telling, and Interiority providing grounding for the plot *really* hit home.

    I think some of it may be a matter of style, too, so it would be interesting to examine what various YA writers do, as Kathryn mentioned. It’s really helpful to have the Good Telling (thanks, Melissa!)/Interiority framework to do that. Take Sara Zarr vs. Sarah Dessen, for example. Like Kathryn said, Sara Zarr is great at providing Interiority. Somehow she does this in a super compact way. Readers also get to know Sarah Dessen’s characters *really* well, and I don’t think it’s just because her books are longer. Applying the Good Telling/Interiority framework, I think it might be because Dessen “fleshes out” situations more in terms of how much her characters think and analyze them. Not saying one writer is better than the other, just that Dessen shows more of her characters’ thoughts, which gives her books the bulk that you mentioned.

    Again, super helpful for going forward reading other YA writers and revising my own ms! Thanks so much.

  14. Carolyn’s avatar

    I can confirm that Mary harps mercilessly for more interiority. :D

  15. Joanna’s avatar

    Thanks so much for referencing and answering my question, Mary!

  16. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Thank you! That is all I have to say. I’ll save the interiority for my manuscript.

  17. Liz Hollar’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post and attaching Mary’s essay. I’ve been struggling with trying not to tell without becoming vague or just using cliches. I guess it’s about stepping back and keeping things in balance.

  18. Jeff Chen’s avatar

    Thanks for the post! It’s great to have a word to keep in mind as I struggle with this interiority issue in my WIPs.

  19. Jenn Jones’s avatar

    This post made me remember some lessons from drama school.

    1) The more specific you are, the more universal it is.
    2) Avoid the CLICHE.

    I think that might be one of the keys to telling vs. showing. Telling states the obvious. It makes the point. Showing hovers around the edges of the point and describes instead the side-effects, the reactions, the impact in ways that are specific, and therefore crystal clear.

    Like:
    “He glared at me angrily” vs. “He cracked his pencil between two fingers.”

    I think I’m STARTING to get it.

  20. Jarvis’s avatar

    The best way to show emotion is detailing body language or using descriptive environmental details to reflect on the character.

  21. Mary’s avatar

    Jarvis — I completely, 3,000% disagree with you on the body language thing, and you’ll see why next week.

  22. Janet Johnson’s avatar

    Thank you for your great post! Makes me realize how much I have to learn. :)

  23. Karen’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post, and especially for providing a definition of interiority with examples. I may sound odd, but today is the first time I’ve heard of the term interiority!

    I just listened to the audio of your Writer’s Digest Publish Your Children’s & Teens Fiction in Today’s Market . I know the teleclass was a while ago; I finally got to it.

    Thanks for all the valuable information.

  24. Bob Jones’s avatar

    Ha ha ha. You realize that internal monologue, like external dialog, is TELLING, right? Maybe you can say you’re not directly telling me, “I feel sad” but you’re just disguising it and still TELLING me your thoughts.

    So honestly there is no Telling vs. Showing. It’s all a huge myth. To borrow from “The Usual Suspects,” the greatest trick agents and editors have ever pulled is making writers believe in show vs. tell.

  25. Elizabeth Varadan’s avatar

    Great post. Great examples. I’ve never really thought about interiority before. Or physical telling. For me, there was the difference between showing and telling, and that was it. But I feel like I learned a lot from this post. Thanks.

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