Starting in the Present Moment

One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

Interrupted Thoughts

I sat down at the computer to write a blog post when I started thinking… Gosh, it’s really weird how I’m writing this blog post on March 8th, but it won’t be posted until March 14th, because I’m loading my blog up ahead of my trip to Paaaaaaaaaaaaaris! Wow. I can’t believe I go to France tomorrow. An eleven-hour direct flight from San Francisco. I’m going to go stircrazy on that plane, and then I’ll have to navigate the Métro. Can’t complain, though! It’s Paris, after all. Hmm. I wonder if my readers know that I’m writing from the past. What will it be like on March 14th? That day, I’ll be in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy wine country. Mmm…wine country…

A noise from the hall sneaked into my thoughts, pulling me out of my reverie about pinot noir. “That’s right!” I muttered to myself. “I’m supposed to be writing a blog post!”


It’s difficult to describe disconnecting a character from his thoughts. This action is usually laden with cliché after cliché after cliché. Voices sneaking into thought. Dialogue snapping a character out of their thinking. Noises startling. Talk of reveries (as you can see above). Fog and/or haze lifting. Being lost in thought. And on and on.

I’m sick of all of them, basically. I would recommend that you avoid this altogether. If a noise is going to come from the hall mid-thought, describe it, then jump back into narrative. If dialogue intrudes, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring. Just like you should eliminate the frame, you don’t need to tell us that thoughts have been interrupted. Give us the thoughts. Give us the interruption. Then give us the results. It’s that simple. The narrative of the thought actually stopping is fluff that should be easy to trim.

An example:

Blah blah blah. Wine country. France. Thinking thinking thinking.

“Mary, write your blog post already!” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Mary wondered how long she’d been spacing. “Duh. Thanks, Mary!”

There’s that one descriptive phrase in there, to get the reader back into the action, but you could even do without it because the “Oh!” conveys surprise or a startled feeling. This issue is a very small nitpick, but, as I said, every word and every phrase counts in your writing.

Eliminating the Frame

There’s a little thing that writers do that bugs me: It’s called a frame. Basically, it’s everything around the necessary information that doesn’t really help your reader understand anything, it’s just superfluous. Here’s an exaggerated example to prove my point:

She saw with her eyes that there was an elephant standing impossibly in the castle’s ballroom.

Or you could simply say:

An elephant stood, proud, tall, and incongruous, in the middle of the castle’s ballroom.

Frames are everywhere. And they are all fat, so trim them. Every time you describe that your character saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted something, see if you can’t drill into the more essential information of the sentence and cut out the unnecessary words. Instead of, “He smelled the cakes fresh out of the oven and they filled the room with warm cinnamon,” focus on the latter half of the sentence to set the mood. (And kudos to you if you’re using all five senses in your writing, including taste, smell, and touch, which often take a backseat to sight and hearing!)

No matter if you’re telling your story in first person or third, you are basically saying, “This is what my character experienced” when you write a picture book or novel. There’s no reason to keep saying, “She experienced such and such,” which is basically what you’re reminding your reader of each time you use a frame. Simply get straight to the such and such. It’s a small trick (and therefore a short post) but it will make your writing that much leaner and cleaner.

Character Self-Description

Here’s an interesting question from Anne:

I’m looking for clever ways to write physical descriptions of first person narrators. It’s just so awkward to have people describe their own looks. I’ve heard that editors are sick of the old “I stared in the mirror” approach. I’ve used the self-effacing “I wish I were better looking” approach, but that too seems overdone.

I have to admit, when I read some bad character self-description in a manuscript, it makes me wince. Never in my life have I, for example, “examined my dark brown locks in the mirror, giving my tall frame a once-over, and wishing, for once, that my blue-green eyes would just pick a color and stick with it.” Who thinks like that? The obvious problem is, of course, that we may think like this if we were seeing ourselves for the first time, but most of us are very familiar with what’s in the mirror. In this case, I feel like we’re all expecting the contrived, super unique self-description, and we’re already groaning about it. What you can do instead is stop trying to make the character’s self-description into a creativity moment and just tell us the details that we need to know.

“I swatted a clump of black hair out of my eyes and ran down the field,” or whatever.

Don’t be too precious about it, don’t put physical description in dialogue unless you can get it to sound organic (none of this “But gosh, that skirt looks really great with your hazel eyes” stuff, that doesn’t sound like authentic speech, we would just say “your eyes” because both characters know what color they’re referring to), and don’t think this is your big opportunity to revolutionize character self-description. Less is definitely more, so just tell us (yes, you can tell and not show in this case) and move on. That’s what I say. This is a frustrating question because I’ve seen it done very poorly, and most likely not noticed when it’s done really well, and would just rather have the necessary details out of the way. I’m guessing your character’s look isn’t the most important thing about the story, so all we need are a few details peppered in.

A Balance of Action and Information

This is something that I’ve started saying at each conference I attend. For those of you who’ve heard it in person or during a critique, I apologize for being redundant. But listen to it anyway because it’s important:

I believe that all writing is a balance of action and information.

Imagine scales in your head. On one end is action: what keeps plot driving forward and teaches us about character as our fictional people advance through the present moments of the story. On the other end is information: what gives us context about the fictional world and also fleshes out the characters we’ve created with need-to-know tidbits that exist outside the present moment.

Both are necessary. Both need to be in balance so that a story can continue. The biggest place where this matters is in a novel’s beginning. Imagine you are trying to read a dystopian that’s in a completely other world–you open the book and it’s strange, you don’t know much about it. Worse, your main character has been whacked in the head before the start of the story and is just groggily waking up. She doesn’t remember who she is or where she is. When she does come to, she realizes she’s in an underground maze, being chased by…something. Whatever it is, it has sharp teeth, it reeks of death, and it’s after her. She doesn’t have anything to defend herself with, so she must start running.

We open immediately to action. It’s great. There’s danger, the stakes are high, her life hangs in the balance. But is this a compelling beginning for fiction? I’d argue that it isn’t, really. Because we have action, but that’s all we have. We don’t know anything about this world in which people get clubbed on the head and maze monsters seem to be just a regular part of life. We don’t know anything about this character because she’s recently suffered a head injury and doesn’t know enough to tell us herself. The stakes here are high, yes, but generic “life and death” versus specific. Since we don’t know the world or the character, we don’t know exactly what’s at risk (other than some random broad’s life) or why we should care. This beginning has too much action and not enough information so it fails to ground the reader and provide a foothold for us to access the story.

On the other end of the scale is information. It’s great to have because, once we know stuff (and, ideally, we pick it up through showing, not telling), we care. It’s not enough to know that there are millions of children starving in the world. Those charity commercials tug at our heartstrings because they show us one child, tell us one story, and they make the problem concrete enough and specific enough that we start to care. But you can go overboard on information, too. Let’s say I open another book. It’s a character who is sitting in their room the night before the first day of school, thinking about his crappy life. He has no friends, his parents are too strict (and definitely uncool) and his sister is a brat. He looks over at his closet, where he’s hidden his skateboard — it causes him even more pain that he hurt his knee over the summer and hasn’t been able to get to the skate park, further alienating himself. He looks around at his clothes, hoping they’re cool enough, and at the rock posters on the walls, grumbling that his favorite bands never come through to tour in his small, miserable town. He thinks for a while about how much he loves his dog, and maybe about the girl that he has a crush on that he’s never spoken to.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me ask you, instead: What has happened so far? Nothing. A kid is sitting and thinking. It’s a completely static beginning with no action. Sure, we learn a lot about his life, but it is all telling, no showing. We care less about the girl he loves because we’ve never seen her reject him in scene. We know he is upset about skateboarding but we are not emotionally invested until we see him limp out of the half-pipe after a failed trick. And do we really need to know about the family pet or the sister right now? I’m guessing not.

You have all this great information in your head about your character or your world, but you can never dump it all on your reader (an “info-dump”) at once, especially at the beginning. Information must emerge organically, usually in the context of action. When we meet the dream girl, it’s okay to have him think about how long he’s been in love with her. That’s information. But then, Home Skillet must march on over there and get his heart crushed. That’s action. Like this, the two work very well together. Too much of either one, and your pacing gets all off, characterization starts to feel flat, and your reader’s emotional investment in the story starts to drag.

This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of your work, either. The balance of action and information is something you must always be vigilant about. I love this additional way of thinking about the fiction craft and I hope you do, too.

Two Signs of Overwriting and Why It’s a Problem

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.

Physical Clichés

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!

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.

Putting On Airs

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.)

Description Issues

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:


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.)


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).


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.)


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.