Descriptive Writing: Positive vs Negative

In descriptive writing, “negative description” doesn’t mean describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct when you’re writing description. Learning how to write clearly and directly is part of developing good writing skills.

descriptive writing, good writing skills
Good writing skills: Always strive to describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

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

Descriptive Writing in the Negative: Examples

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.

His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

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

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

Good Writing Skills: Be Direct

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

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

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

Tips to Trim Telling in Writing

Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction, because they amount to telling in writing. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene. Let’s look a little closer at telling vs showing in these instances.

telling in writing, telling vs showing
Looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. In writing, use action and context clues to convey an emotion without spelling it out.

Some Things Are Better In Life Or On The Screen

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

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

Don’t Take Shortcuts

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

For Example…

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

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

Trim Out Telling in Writing

Instead, if you write…

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

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

Awareness, Not Elimination

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

Hire my editing services and I’ll help you trim out instances of telling in writing.

Creating Subtle Interiority Through Word Choice

I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of developing subtle interiority via word choice. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is about interiority in writing. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post that digs into what show don’t tell really means.)

word choice, active verb
Consider word choice carefully. Evocative active verbs go a long way in creating a “show don’t tell” manuscript.

Telling vs Showing in Writing

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés when I’m trying to figure out how to describe emotion… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

“Emotion in Description”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

Subtle Interiority Via Word Choice

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via word choice in description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one active verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

Some Examples of Evocative Active Verbs

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with active verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description and should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

 

Writing Voice and Building a Lexicon

Great manuscripts create their own writing voice, dictionaries, and lexicons, in a way.

writing voice, slang, lexicon, dictionary, word choice, creative writing, narrative voice, developing voice in writing
Writing voice means having specific words and ways of speaking become a natural part of your manuscript.

This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex novel world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans.

Building Inside Jokes With Your Reader

Developing a voice in writing that includes special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, worldbuilding effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey.

I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.”

To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.”

Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Writing Voice and Word Choice

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of writing voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town.

Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of developing voice in writing, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick.

But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.

Developing voice in writing is an elusive concept to grasp. With me as your developmental editor, we’ll be able to drill right into it and take yours to the next level.

Connecting Secondary Elements

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

Starting Your Novel in the Present Moment

Starting your novel is tough. Getting the opening right is even tougher. 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.

starting a novel, how to start a novel, find your novel beginning
When you’re starting your novel, ground readers in the here and now. They should have a sense of time, place, and character within the first two paragraphs.

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.

Starting Your Novel with the Specific and Well-Defined

When you’re starting your novel, you’re dealing with Prime Real Estate. 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.

Try Starting Your Novel with a Sense of Time, Place, and Character

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.

Are you struggling with starting your novel? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you develop a compelling opening.

Narrative Interruption and How to Show Interruption in Dialogue

This post is about three things: how to show an interruption in dialogue, writing an interruption, and narrative interruption in general.

how to write an interruption, narrative interruption, how to show interruption in dialogue, writing an interruption, interrupting a train of thought in narrative, creative writing, fiction writing
There’s no interrupting this train … unless you have an em-dash.

Writing Narrative Interruption

(This is an experiential piece, go with it…)

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 as the narrative interruption, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring.

Examples of Writing an Interruption in Thoughts

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 interruption 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.

How to Show an Interruption In Dialogue

With narration, interruptions can be a little bit loosey goosey. On the other hand, how to show an interruption in dialogue is very clear-cut. It goes like this:

“I’m just trying to talk here and–”

“Don’t you say another word!”

Two dashes make what’s called an em-dash, and your word processing program will likely transform this into an em-dash on your behalf when you type it to interrupt dialogue. This is really the only way to format an interruption in dialogue, and you should let the formatting work for you. There’s no need for things like:

“I’m just trying to talk here and…” But then Mary was rudely interrupted.

“Don’t you say another word!”

You shouldn’t narrate the interruption. Don’t describe it. Don’t use an ellipse… Those are for when characters drift off when they’re talking, and interruptions are more sudden. Use an em-dash. That’s it. That’s all. Easy.

Transitions can be tricky. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can smooth them out together, and work on the overall flow of your voice.

Editing Your Writing: Eliminate the Frame

I want to share a tip for editing your writing. 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.

editing your writing, prose writing
Frames are everywhere. And they are all fat, so trim them.

Editing Your Writing: Trim the Frames

Frames are everywhere. And they are all fat, so they’re an easy thing to trim when editing your writing. 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 prose writing, including taste, smell, and touch, which often take a backseat to sight and hearing!)

Frames are a Form of Telling

No matter if you’re telling your story in first person point of view 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 for editing writing (and therefore a short post) but it will make your prose that much leaner and cleaner.

I love helping writers of all skill levels improve their prose writing. Each manuscript critique comes with proofreading and line editing services, which will help polish your work for agent eyes.

First Person Character Description and How to Write Character Descriptions

Here’s an interesting question about first person character description and how to write character descriptions from Anne:

I’m looking for how to write character descriptions of first person narrators in clever ways. 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 to first person character description, but that too seems overdone.

first person character description, how to write character description, character self-description, character description in first person, novel character description, writing character description, first person POV
I stopped and carefully examined my high cheekbones and mousy brown hair in the mirror. Could I get any more cliché?

Most First Person Character Description Sounds Awkward

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. How to write character description that sounds natural in first person POV?

Stop Trying So Hard, Deliver It, and Move On

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 first person character description. (Another thing to think about is getting too “third person” for character description in first person.)

Less is definitely more when it comes to how to write character description, 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.

Working on characterization is hard without a second set of eyes. Hire me as your manuscript editor and I can help you hone in on your protagonist.

Pacing Your Exposition in Writing

This commentary on pacing your exposition in writing 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.

exposition in writing, pacing in writing
You don’t want too much action OR exposition in writing. Balance both elements to maintain fluid pacing throughout.

Stories Need Both Action and Exposition in Writing

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. Balancing these elements is what allows you to maintain fluid pacing in writing.

An Example of Too Much Action, Not Enough Exposition

You need both action and exposition in writing. 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 breakneck pacing in writing, 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. (Check out my post on how to start a chapter for more info.)

An Example of Too Much Exposition, Not Enough Action

On the other end of the scale is information, or exposition in writing. 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 exposition, 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. The pacing in writing is crawling along at a snail’s pace. 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.

Always Avoid the Info Dump

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 when you’re beginning a novel. Exposition 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 exposition in writing  in order to achieve fluid pacing 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.

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