Starting a Novel With Setting Description

Today’s post is a video response, and it’s all about starting a novel with setting!

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask, how do you open a novel? Is it wrong to start a novel by describing setting? What if the setting reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and starting a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary concept where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you really want to ground the reader at the opening, and setting is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job here. I’m starting with this evocative setting. This setting tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

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Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

The Formula for Starting a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

directing reader attention, description, narrative voice, creative writing
It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

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Feeling all the feelings.

Say what? Feelings feel like feelings, duh! Or do they? If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and making it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). You can see older posts where I discuss how to write interiority here. Go ahead and catch up, I’ll wait…

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job is to make the reader care. And putting authentic, relatable emotion on the page is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up here.

Whether they name emotions outright, or engage in a lot of telling, or sink into melodrama, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

There’s so much more nuance to human feelings. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger.

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with adding relatable emotions to your manuscript, let me take a look and give you personalized, hands-on character critique.

Adding a Stance

When I talk to client about world-building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in a world, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for world-building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. So the reader is still wondering…so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

Generic Description

I’ve written before about generic words that don’t add much in the way of specific emotions. Now I’m on to generic descriptions that don’t add anything to scene. For example:

The teenagers congregated at the store, listening to music on their devices. They wore various outfits, featuring the most popular brands.

I’d imagine this is the type of sentence that would appear in a textbook for an alien about humans. They’d have a lot of knowledge about us, but because they’re outsiders, they’d speak more in generalities than specifics…getting close to an accurate depiction, but without any of the detail that makes the knowledge realistic or engrossing.

The issue with this type of generic description is that the reader will already have a vague imagine their minds. As soon as you say “shopping mall,” the reader paints a place-holder picture that’s very much like my example sentences.

Your job as a writer, then, is to take that vague image and embellish it with detail that’s specific to your world, your characters, and your story. The purpose of description is to take the generic and sharpen the image. So a reasonable replacement for the example would be:

They headed to the shoe store so Nikki could get another hot pink pair of kicks to match her screaming neon yellow yoga pants. Josh cranked his Shuffle. Whatever song came next would be better than the Taylor Swift blaring from the speakers.

Now, I’ve written about specific references in a manuscript (like the Taylor Swift line), but I decided to do that here just because I’m targeting vagueness. I hope that you can see how painting a more specific scene, with some emotional overtones, clarifies the scene more than simply inserting arbitrary-seeming narration.

The Indirect Comparison

There’s something to consider when you describe something or someone in fiction: are you describing them directly, or indirectly? One thing I keep getting on freelance clients about (maybe to an extreme) is the idea that they’re “saying something simple in a complicated way.” Sure, I want writers to flex their artistic muscles and come up with amazing descriptions, novel words, and interesting turns of phrase. But the more I read, the more I can appreciate the sense of style that lies in simple…simplicity.

The same applies when I see something or someone described indirectly, usually with a comparison to another known quantity in the story or in the negative.

Comparison:

Henry is just like Craig, except a little rowdier.
Each hill was like the last, covered in flaxen wheat.

Negative:

Craig didn’t have Henry’s nerve or sense of outgoing frenzy.
This sky was not the bright orange of a sunset, not bright or dazzling in hue.

Rather than telling me what Henry’s like, or what Craig is like, or what the hill or sunset are in their own terms, I’m meant to understand them from the side with an indirect comparison. This is totally fine. I won’t sound the alarm if you should use it occasionally.

But sometimes I wish writers would take a more direct line. If we’re talking about Henry, let’s talk about Henry. (And, ideally, we wouldn’t be telling about character, either.) If we’re talking about the sunset, let’s get to what it is, rather than what it isn’t. It seems almost too simple, almost like a trick. But sometimes it’s good to relax and expand a bit into your writing without worry about flexing any muscles or tying too many strings together. Look directly at the story element and show us around it. Give it a place in your world that’s unique to it, that’s simple, that’s direct. There’s boldness in that, and clarity.

Noticing Filler

A big part of my job when I work with clients is to help them see their manuscripts as I see them. And what I see, a lot of the time, is opportunity to tighten the overall prose. One subtle function of wanting to pare down (other than overwriting, which we discussed in last week’s post), is noticing when you’re including filler.

Whenever you’re working with first person or close third POV, it is understood that your protagonist (or POV character) is narrating the scene. They are your lens, in effect. Especially in first person, as a few cases can be made to the contrary in third.

So when a scene is described, as in:

She noticed a man sitting in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. She saw his downtrodden expression and heard what could’ve only been a sigh issuing from his lips.

It’s assumed that the main character is there, seeing and hearing everything, in order to relay it back to the reader. Technically, they can’t narrate what they haven’t become aware of in the first place, yanno?

There are three instances of filler here. “She noticed,” “she saw,” and “she heard.” We simply don’t need this. Don’t waste time narrating that, oh yeah, your character who’s been hearing and seeing everything that’s been described in the book so far has also seen and heard this. That’s beyond implied.

Instead, a cleaner, tighter revision might read:

A man sat in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. He wore a downtrodden expression and issued what could’ve only been a sigh.

I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that this is an extremely nitpicky note. “Why does it matter whether or not I cut SIX WORDS from this description? It’s six words!” Or 18% of the sample in question. I know not every sentence of yours is going to have filler, but if you cut even 9% or even 4.5% out of a manuscript that people say is running too lengthy at 100,000 words, that’s 18,000, 9,000 or 4,500 words, respectively!

Little nitpicky things make a big difference in the long run, and if all of your sentences get a little tighter, the perceived difference to the reader (how quickly the pacing moves, how smoothly the descriptions read, how efficiently we get from scene to scene) will be worth much more than the actual number of words you’ve trimmed.

Positive Versus Negative Description

When I say “negative description,” I’m not talking about describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct in your description.

negative description in fiction, writing voice, positive and negative description
The difference between positive and negative description.

I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.

Examples of Negative Description in Fiction

Examples:

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.
His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that.

The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”

Be Direct in Your Descriptions

Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.

Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

Struggling with writing voice and description? Turn to me for fiction editing.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

There are some elements of life which do not translate well to onto the page. Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene.

My theory on them, frustrating as it is, boils down to: some things are better in life or the screen. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply to intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life.

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice, the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

When you write, for example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

…you are taking a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? Because ideally you’d be putting the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word.

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool.