Description

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Often, when I read a submission from a newer writer or one who has just come out of a fiction class, I flag it for overwriting. What is overwriting? Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader. Sometimes I wonder if people who overwrite are trying to live up to some idea of “fiction writer” that exists in their heads…a scribe who uses $10 words and milks every image and otherwise packs every sentence until it’s dragging and bloated. They want to make sure we get they’re a real writer. Sometimes this process is at the front of their mind, sometimes it happens without them realizing.

Here are the two types of overwriting that I see the most often:

Overwritten Images

Lots of overwriting lives in the images. Writers often see perfect images in prose — images that work well — and they try their hand at creating something comparable, not knowing that the key to most perfect images is a) simplicity and b) isolation. Or they hear that images are supposed to be an objective correlative (a parallel for emotion). Or they know to load images with meaning, so they do their best to create multiple layers with each description. Or they hear that words are supposed to be mimetic of the action they’re describing, so they really bring out the active verbs. These are all fine instincts and great fiction craft tips, but they could easily go awry. For example:

Cold starlight shattered across the inky black-velvet expanse of the searching night. The frozen air sliced the last of the warmth from Cassandra’s lungs as she choked in a sputtering breath.

Wow! Lot’s of tension there. Each verb is razor-sharp and engineered to convey drama: “shattered,” “sliced,” and “choked.” The stars and the night sky are hostile (“cold” and “searching”). Cassandra is obviously in a dark and unfriendly world.

But imagine if every sentence was like this. Or every image worked this hard. It would get downright exhausting to read. Which brings me to the next sign of overwriting…

Hitting the Reader Over the Head

Simplicity is the natural opposite of overwriting (I’m Team Simplicity, if anyone is wondering). Just as overwrought description is common in overwriting, it often goes hand in hand with its sister troll: hitting the reader over the head. In the example above, the world was hostile and cold. We got it. Redundancy is another way that a writer can hit their reader over the head.

This often happens when the writer thinks of not just one perfect image (their imagination is mightier than that!) but two or even three. Instead of opting for simplicity and choosing the one perfect image to convey what they mean, they go ahead and cram all three in. Let’s go back to poor Cassandra:

She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like gossamer spiderweb. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel-cold night.

We get it! It’s still cold and now her jacket’s a broken mess. This writer (me) really wanted the reader to get Cassandra’s desperation, so they introduced us to the image of a drowning woman. Next, I really wanted you to get that the coat is insubstantial…cue spiderweb metaphor. Then, just for fun, I loved the noise of ice separating from the glacier and I wanted to toss it on the heap (plus, this reinforces that — news flash — it’s really cold out there…genius!).

One of these images would’ve been fine. Two is pushing it. Three, and then all the extra cold imagery heaped on top? That’s too much. Pick one image and make it do the work instead of piling on every single thing you can think of. If you’ll notice, overwriting stops action. We’ve had five sentences and only two (more like one and a half) pieces of information: it’s cold, and Cassandra’s jacket isn’t great, which relates back to the cold.

The Argument for Simplicity

Writers often get bored with the simple. A great example is the word “said.” To show off their chops (and their online thesaurus), they whip out all kinds of fancy “said” synonyms: “chortled,” “shrieked,” “argued.” Well, this is an amateur error because “said” blends in and it simply works. It doesn’t stop the action while the reader notices what a clever word you’re using, it keeps things flowing. Writers often think they’re saying something too simple, so they decide to jazz it up by going out of their way to say it differently.

This is where overwriting always swoops in. I understand it completely. Writers are chomping at the bit to write, to make up a new image, to really get their point across. But sometimes the simplest way of saying something — a way that’s still artful and expressive but also restrained — is the best. When you’re trying to show off in the prose, you lose sight of your real purpose: to tell a tale. When you’re trying to be understood through multiple images and repetition, you’re not giving your reader enough credit. Overwriting is all about trying too hard. Simplicity is all about letting the craft and the story speak for themselves.

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In an effort to dodge the “show, don’t tell” bullet, a lot of writers have taken the external route in conveying the emotions of their character. As I’ve said before, there’s Bad Telling, and there’s Good Telling. Bad telling deals with you just stating a fact about your character and then taking all the fun out of reading for your audience. Good telling involves using story context and, more importantly, interiority, to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a savvy part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating, either.

Here’s an example of Bad Telling:

It was the last night of the play. Moxie felt sad as she lined up for the final curtain call. There would be no more stolen moments with Tobin. No more excuses for her to look at him as he performed the role of Hamlet. Just like the real Shakespearean Hamlet and Ophelia were doomed, so was Moxie’s crush. Tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what she’d ever do tomorrow night without all this.

Here’s an example of Good Telling, using the principles of interiority:

The heavy red curtain cut them off from the audience and the lights. Moxie stood, feeling heavy and rooted to the stage, and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness as the clapping started in the house. This was it. The last curtain call. The last time she’d teeter on the brink of insanity as Ophelia. The last time she’d peek out from the wings and watch the audience nod along and mouth the words as Tobin, with a deep, slow breath, launched into the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The last time she’d get to tape the fake blood packet into his vest backstage, right before he went off to his fateful last duel scene. Moxie snapped to attention as the curtain swung up again. Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand. The last time for that, too. When would she ever have such a perfect excuse again? The audience beyond the footlights, clapping and shouting, blurred, and she threw on her most dazzling smile, blinking away the tears.

Now, whether you think the sample itself is “good” or not, you can see that you got more insight into Moxie’s character, into the context of her situation, and into the specifics of her emotions with the second example than you did with the Bad Telling snippet.

Let me introduce you, then, to another version of Bad Telling: Physical Telling.

The drape lowered on the scene, giving Tobin enough time, Moxie knew, to get out of his royal casket and join the rest of the cast for curtain call. She wiped at her eyes, hoping she wasn’t smearing her make-up. Her heart hammered, but it wasn’t the rush of finishing the show. Not this time. She hugged herself, her arms crossed tight. Tobin jogged up, fixing her with a dazzling smile. He tilted his head. There was a twinkle in his eye, something she couldn’t quite read. She relaxed her arms. Her hand grabbed his. The curtain swung up again and she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks.

Now. This is more subtle. There’s nothing technically wrong with this sample. Some might even find it well-written. Well, this is my blog, and you come here to hear what I have to say about stuff. And I am sick of Physical Telling. Over it. If you disagree, another blog is just a click away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t just a rant…I will also explain my reasoning.)

First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.

Per my earlier post about physical clichés, you’ll also know that what hearts, mouths, lungs, stomachs, and hearts do on the page is also, more often than not, a cliché. Hearts hammering, guts rumbling, smiles half-creeping up faces, eyes twinkling, all of that. Ugh. So if we can’t “show” a character tapping their foot with impatience, maybe we can tell the reader that their stomach is tightening in anticipation of being late. Maybe that will be better!

Wrong. Because someone was once told “show, don’t tell,” and then was told “don’t use cliché gestures,” they have now started telling readers about the status of their main characters’ internal organs. Awesome! Except I’m not a doctor with a chart. I don’t care about the status of each little hunk of tissue on your main character’s body. It’s when a writer starts telling me about guts and hearts and lungs and eyes that I most frequently highlight that section and write, “Interiority instead!” in my notes. Put that on a notecard and tape it to your monitor if you have this problem: Interiority instead!

This brings me to another specific subset of Physical Telling (you can read about another post in this vein, Putting On Airs, from earlier). It’s when writers realize that stomach- and heart-status is cliché, so they move on to looks and gazes and twinkles of eyes and other body language cues.

People writing anything with a romantic connection, listen up! Moments where you have your two romantic interests together are prime offenders in this vein. How do you convey chemistry without describing eyes lighting up and blushes and tilts of the head? I don’t know. You’re the writer. But don’t resort to the tired old fallbacks.

Why are we so good at these descriptions? Think about where we see them (key word here: see). That’s right. We’re visual creatures. When we watch movies or TV or interact with other human beings, these looks and tilts and subtle shifts in body language are glaringly clear. “Ah, he’s tipping his head ever so slightly when he talks to the girl he likes, that must mean he likes her, too…squeeee!”

But what works well on the screen doesn’t always translate to the page. Those looks that we’re so good and so hardwired to interpret when we see them don’t necessarily convey the same information when we read them. Sometimes things are hard to read when we’re reading, yeah? And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t have one thousand words to spill on describing a lovelorn tilt of the head.

Some things work on the page, others not so much. And the page is not a physical realm. Sure, some writing can be very visceral, and we can describe lots of action, but I don’t personally believe that the seat of emotion – as it is conveyed in writing – lives in the physical body of your characters. I’m always a fan of “interiority instead!” and of mixing the character’s inner life (and not their organs’ inner life) with what’s going on, plot-wise.

This is just one way to convey emotion. I happen to think it’s the right way. But, as such, I’m thrilled to start the conversation about Physical Telling and how it relates to “show, don’t tell.” What are your thoughts? Taps foot, checks watch, tilts head and glares.

ETA: JH’s point well-taken, I’ve added to the example of Bad Telling. Thanks, JH!

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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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Writers are very used to hearing “show, don’t tell,” right? Well, one of my cornerstone posts is what “show, don’t tell” really means, and, more importantly, why it’s such a big deal. If you haven’t had a chance to read that yet, you can find it here.

Telling your readers about characters or atmosphere in your work is taking away their agency, their participation in the story. Plus, it’s just plain lazy. Really good writing is hard work, and telling is an instant shortcut, but it doesn’t fly with me.

There’s one type of telling that I’ve been noticing a lot of lately. It’s more subtle than the basic “Johnny felt sad” example of telling which you never, ever want to do. Let’s call this new type of telling…atmospheric telling. Here are some examples:

“Well, I never!” he said, with an air of superiority.

An awkward silence filled the classroom as I hunted for my seat. Of course, it had to be in the very back, where the bully awaited me. I could almost swear I saw him lick his chops.

The echoing hallway of the old, abandoned hospital was just plain creepy.

The tone of her voice changed just slightly; there was an edge there now that I hadn’t noticed a moment ago.

Now, once you know what to look for, this is exactly as underwhelming as more obvious telling. Do you get where I’m going with this? In the first example, you’re telling in terms of characterization. This character has been insulted by someone and their tone has shifted and they’re being superior and defensive. I would argue that the dialogue does that work and conveys that without the telling phrase of “with an air of superiority,” so this example is also redundant.

The next two are examples I see all the time. You want to convey the mood of the scene. You need to get across that there’s something in the air, whether it’s awkwardness or fear or a jovial atmosphere. But just because someone tells me that something is awkward or scary or fun, I’m not going to feel it. That’s really the base problem behind all telling. You tell me something and it sort of bounces off of me on a surface level. “Oh, okay, it’s awkward in the classroom,” I think. But at no point does it go deeper, at no point do my toes start to curl because the scene you’re showing me is so uncomfortable, embarrassing, terrifying, creepy, etc. Instead, I’m getting the shortcut, the lazy version, the cop out.

The tone of voice example is also telling. It’s a shortcut to conveying emotion. Next week, I’ll tell you more about why that kind of telling, that which describes vocal tone and also small changes in gesture or facial expression just doesn’t work on the page. But here you’re, in essence, doing just what the writer of the ultimate telling sentence “Johnny felt sad” is doing, only you’re doing it a touch more subtly. If I could rewrite all the examples above and reduce them to their essences, it would read like this:

The king was offended.

Mark felt awkward.

Amy felt scared.

Julie was on edge.

My examples of atmospheric telling are certainly better than the above but they’re still not quite letting go of the telling baby blanket. They’re still only halfheartedly approaching the topic of showing. And they’re both hard to notice and hard to break yourself of. Still, they’re one of those really subtle things that could make a huge difference in your writing. Look for it in your manuscript and I think you will start to see atmospheric telling in many, many places.

So how do we show instead of tell? Use scenework and interiority more. I had a great question posed to me a few weeks ago, and that’s “How do we tell the difference between good interiority (a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, usually narrated to the reader by the character in 1st person or the close 3rd narrator who has access to the character’s head), and telling?” It’s a really higher-order question, and I’ll delve more deeply into it on Wednesday. (Just to get you started thinking in that direction, here’s a post from one of my readers, actually, about when to tell instead of show.)

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There are two main description issues that I’ve been seeing in manuscripts. As I said in my post on Mimetic Writing, the writer uses description to curate the story and direct the reader’s attention. Description is a tricky thing to pull off in writing, and it’s also a very subtle thing.

Done wrong, it either draws not enough attention or too much. Done right, it becomes a critical part of the prose. While description is rarely the star, it does make up the stage upon which the action plays out. Here are the three things that usually go wrong:

Underdescription

A lack of description is a small but potentially fatal flaw. The reader may not notice a lack of description — it’s usually difficult to acutely notice something that isn’t there — but their experience of your story will not be the same.

When I read things that have little description, I get this fuzzy feeling while reading. That’s instead of the mental clarity I expect when reading something that really gives me something concrete to imagine. Things without description are hazy. Things with enough description really make the writer’s words gel in my head. Without description, the reader tends to skim through your prose, unanchored. Readers go too fast and don’t really revel in the details of your writing.

My rule of thumb is that we need a description of every character that will help us see them (and also provide characterizing detail, like that they only paint the nails on their left hand…which tells me they’re a bit offbeat, or whatever), and we need some carefully chosen descriptions of each setting. (There’s a big catch to both of these, see below.)

Overdescription

Where prose without description tends to go too fast, prose with too much description tends to go slowly. Gone are the days when lavish pages of description can keep a reader’s attention. The important thing to remember about excess description is that it will slow down your pacing, so you need to choose when to include description carefully.

Know that when you stop to describe something in detail, you are giving your readers a great mental picture, but action usually stops. And realize that you don’t need to describe every single thing about a scene, or every action taken in that scene, or everything about a character (if you describe character traits, you’ll usually fall into the trap of telling, so do physical descriptions of characters and then let their characteristics come across via showing, in scene).

Misdirection

In real life, “misdirection” refers to knowingly diverting someone’s attention in order to sneak something by them, usually a magic trick or your hand into their pocket to steal their wallet. In writing life, I’m going to revamp the term a little bit. When I say “misdirection,” I mean that the writer is unknowingly shifting the reader’s attention to the wrong thing in a scene. How do you do this unwanted thing? It’s usually a description problem.

Imagine a dinner scene. There’s a lovely turkey on the table. The family gathers around to smell its velvety aroma, rich with thyme and rosemary. The butter under the skin has put a crackly golden glaze on the breast. The knife slices right through the tender meat. There are large chunks of fleur de sel sprinkled on top. The parents are talking, meanwhile. You take your first bite and the savory juices, the crunchy skin, the tang of the salt almost overwhelm your taste buds! Oh yeah, the parents just said they’re getting divorced.

Say what?

In this paragraph, the writer (me) got obsessed with describing the turkey on the table (probably because I haven’t had breakfast yet) and totally skipped over the real point of the scene: the parents have gotten the family together to make a huge announcement. Whenever I read a scene the spends way too much time describing an insignificant detail when something else much more important is going on, I usually think, “You’re talking about that right now?”

Like, you just heard that the ogres are storming the castle and you have time to detail the inlaid crystal on the hilt of your sword for us? Really? Ya think you might want to either shorten that description or put it elsewhere, a time when there aren’t bloodthirsty monsters on your tail?

Lavish description at an inappropriate time is probably a signal that you need to kill some babies. (Translation: cut some of your favorite passages, not actually go down to the nursery and go on a spree.)

Therefore…

Your goal when describing either scenes, actions, or characters is balance. Plus you need to figure out when to describe. Just because you need to describe each character and scene doesn’t mean you have to describe it in detail the first time we encounter it.

This is one of the biggest problems I see in novel openings because, well, everything we encounter in a book’s first 10 pages is new to the reader…every place and character needs describing. But if we did describe everything in detail in the first 10 pages, there’d be no room for plot or scenework right at the beginning of your novel, where it matters the most to hook your reader (or an agent).

You don’t have to do all of your descriptions at once. Just like you layer in the plot, you should layer in descriptions to keep adding to our understanding of a character and their scenery. Give us a physical trait in one scene, a new element of the environment in another scene, etc. Resist the urge to infodump with your descriptions, and really pick the right time and place. And watch out for ogres…it is Monday, after all.

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This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.

I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!

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Say what? Bear with me here a moment. I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person. It’s easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) in the third person. When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

Descriptions like the one I’ve written above are in first person (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends. You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. Do you say, about yourself, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

To further illustrate, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that's another post for another day...]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of cheap physical symptoms cluttering everything, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside. Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when the observer is in first person, talking about their own body.

This is one of those more subtle notes that I give, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

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A great, big “thank you!” goes out to my readers who were able to attend the webinar yesterday afternoon. (Some have been asking technical questions about it. Since Writer’s Digest operates the webinar, they’d be your most helpful resource. Contact them using the information in your registration packet, please.) I got a lot of great questions during the webinar, that I’ll be addressing in the future, and I also got a lot of great questions from Wednesday’s post. If you asked me a question there and there’s enough of an answer to post about, do keep an eye out for the answer on the blog soon!

This question comes from reader Valeria via email, and it deals with setting, which I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about:

Most books I have read so far describe a specific setting. Like a certain city or state. I know setting and the way it is developed is very important for a story but can there be such thing as a nameless setting? I am asking because I live abroad but I don’t want to set my story in my country. The problem is, I’m not familiar with other cities. I have been describing my story’s setting as a dark and gray city, but not a specific city. In fact, I would like to keep a mystery of where exactly this gloomy city is located. I’d like for my readers to think this can happen in any city, but is this really a good idea? Should I research my setting a bit more and name it?

I love it when readers answer their own question. But I did want to talk a bit more about this particular one. Setting is important. So important, in fact, that some readers and writers and editors and agents say that setting should become like another character in the story, as well-defined as any of the people that populate it.

While I think that some writers focus entirely too much on the particulars of their setting and too little on their people (for example, high fantasy writers or hard sci-fi writers who spend countless pages describing the world or spaceship they’ve created, complete with maps and another language, and too little time on the characters), I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.

If you don’t want to give the setting a real name, invent one. Turn up the fantasy element of the setting. You’ll give your created world instant flavor, and its people a place to identify with. As human beings, we can’t help wanting to identify with a place and calling it home…we need somewhere to belong. Kids and teens are always talking about where they live, their favorite places, or the places they want to escape. Listen to the first questions that a little kid will ask you when they’re getting to know you: What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? Where do you live? Then they will proudly identify themselves, ie: “I live on Cherry Street!” That’s why a name is important, too. It gives people something easy and immediate to identify with. When I meet people in New York, the little kid rule is still true. One of the first questions they ask is what neighborhood I live in, by name.

Place is very important to the human mind. And fleshing out your setting is just part of the novel writing craft. If you’re not comfortable really writing a brand new setting for your story, at least give it a name and characteristics and details. Paragraph descriptions of setting on every page are clunky and dull and won’t engage the reader as much as action will, but you still need to give your story a sense of place with as many specific details as possible. In Valeria’s example, just “dark and gray” for a city isn’t going to be enough. Readers need more details to bring what’s in their mind’s eye to life as they’re reading. If that includes creating a fantasy version of your own city and calling it something else or doing careful research on other cities, then that’s what it will take.

I’m familiar with the urge to make a place universal enough that the reader will think it’s their own town or city. This notion is why a lot of medieval literature and plays featured a character called Everyman. This Everyman character was supposed to stand in for the reader and symbolize the universal significance of the action and how it applied to a generic character who, literally, could be anyone and everyone.

However, that’s a very cheap way of making a reader relate to your story. You might as well call your city Your Town and have that do all the work for you. I’m here to say that the opposite of the Everyman idea is true. Instead of finding really vague and generic things relatable, readers relate to the specific. Which of the following two will make you think that the character is like you?

She ate a sandwich.

She bit into her turkey sandwich, only to have a slice of red onion escape and fall on the floor. Five second rule, she thought, glancing around to see if anyone was looking. Using a fake cough as an excuse to bend over, she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum and popped it in her mouth.

By giving us specific details in the second example, I’ve created a character who is relatable, and I’ve also taught the reader something about her as a person. Not only do we feel like, yeah, we’ve been there, we’ve dropped that food and picked it up off the floor before, but that she’s like us, and she’s a little embarrassed about grabbing that onion, but she does it anyway.

The same will be true about your city. If you give us specific details — “Hey!” the reader thinks. “There are soda cans in the rain gutter in MY city, too!” — they will actually be more relatable than generalities.

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I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…

The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.

This can work against you — if you’re not aware of this and spend lots of time describing stuff that will not be important as the novel progresses — or for you — if you are aware of this and use this to craft where your reader’s attention goes. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.

The other consideration is location. The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.

Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. If you start with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or if you give the reader all description and no character, that is a missed opportunity. The opening paragraphs of subsequent chapters are your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (a post on “grounding the reader” later). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.

Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. Make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.

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There are a lot of glances being shot on the pages of most novels. Sarcastic ones, annoyed ones, angry ones…characters always seem to have meaningful looks and glances for each other.

This is often a tic for writers. What do I mean by “tic”? Something you do in your writing that you’re not aware of. Something you usually do a lot. Some writers have favorite words, other writers have pet descriptions, and yet others have go-to actions and gestures for their characters.

Why do I think so many writers rely on “She shot him a glance” or “He gave her a look” in their writing? Because it’s a cinematic construct that we’re used to in movies and on TV. When a real life person or a movie character shoots a glance, we can read their body language, see the expression on their face, and interpret meaning from their eyes.

Right away, we can get the flavor of the look or glance and what it is meant to communicate to the target character and to us, the viewer. Loaded looks are pretty much the staple of soap operas and sitcoms. A lot goes without being said in words in these visual mediums.

But that’s just the problem. In prose, we don’t have the added benefits of seeing the character’s facial expressions or reading their looks as they give another character a meaningful glance. And if we can’t see the look…it loses a lot of its meaning. The glance becomes vague instead of specific, as it can be on the screen. And vagueness is the death of good prose.

What’s the solution? Try to wean yourself off of glances. Sure, you can use a well-placed glance or look if you have enough context to make it count. And you can always qualify the glance, ie: “She shot him a murderous glance” or “He fired daggers at her with his eyes,” but these are so overused that they’ve verged into cliche territory. It may be easier to just face it — a loaded look in prose will never carry the same weight as it does in visual mediums — and more on to finding a fresher way for characters to communicate, something that reads better on the page.

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