Greetings and salutations my fellow storytellers! It’s great to have you back once again for the latest addition to my installment on the drafting process. Over the next several posts, I will be covering the various types of writing used in fiction and today’s entry is all about descriptive writing, which will likely comprise the lion’s share of your novel’s word count. Descriptive writing is where your imagination gets to interact directly with your readers’, helping them to envision the wonderful characters, settings, and events of your world and plot.
As you continue to develop as a writer, you will learn how to convey enough detail to effectively frame a scene and establish the atmosphere, then to get out of the way and allow your reader to paint color in between the clean lines you have drawn. Try to squeeze in too much detail and they will began to scan the page for where the action begins. However, if your descriptive prose is too Spartan or too vague, your scenes will fail to engage and impact your audience to begin with. Descriptive writing goes hand in hand with narrative exposition, in which the person (or disembodied entity) telling your story relays information directly to the reader.
In this section, I will first go over the use (and misuse) of adjectives and adverbs and then head into some general tips to keep in mind when drafting descriptive language. Finally, we will cover writing about your characters and settings, before ending with a conversation on the old adage of showing vs. telling, as well as how and when to include exposition and summary in your narrative.
Adjectives and adverbs
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun, clarifying the term by making it more specific. E.g. “The tall man opened the red door.”
Adverbs on the other hand, modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They are the modifiers that generally end in “-ly.” E.g. “Tom gently stroked his guitar while swaying rhythmically back and forth.”
Both adverbs and adjectives are fundamental components of all types of writing, and the extent to which you use them well (or abuse them) will go a long way towards making or breaking your novel all by itself. Consider them to be powerful spices, for the right modifier in the right place can enhance the flavor of your narrative dramatically. But toss in too many too often and your text will taste confused, clumsy, and otherwise unpalatable. Before we get into some strategic advice on the use of adjectives and adverbs, let me emphasize the first rule I will suggest in this section.
Rule 1: Don’t go overboard with adjectives and adverbs.
This is another one of those “less is more” aspects to writing I have mentioned from time to time across this blog. The essence of the idea here is that you should only use adjectives or adverbs if they add a new (more specific) meaning to a phrase that is needed to convey important details. This is really just an extension of the broader rule “Don’t add words to your prose that aren’t necessary or important.” In general, if a word can be removed from a sentence without altering its meaning or impact, either by making it more specific or evocative, take out your trimming shears and start cutting.
Of course, you will be using a considerable number of adjectives and adverbs over the course of drafting your novel. You just want to make sure you use them in a manner that will maximize their impact and help your overall narrative to flow smoothly. Bear in mind that adverbs are not only words that end in “-ly,” they are one of the four fundamental components of language, alongside nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Adverbs on the other hand, serve a critical function in a sentence by supplementing, restricting, or clarifying the meaning of nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives. If you cut them out of your text too aggressively, it will limit your ability to convey important information to your reader, as these modifying words serve a unique and vital role in constructing a narrative.
Again, the problem here lies not with adverbs and adjectives themselves, rather that many writers tend to go overboard when using them, giving their sentences a cluttered or “purple” appearance that many readers (and publishers) will associate with amateur work.
There are a number of helpful guidelines you can follow to help rein in your use of modifiers:
Reducing adjectives and adverbs by picking stronger verbs and nouns
The easiest and most powerful way to pare back your use of modifiers is to choose stronger nouns and verbs to begin with.
Let’s take a look at a few sentences so I can show you what I’m talking about. How about the phrase, “He moved slowly towards the door?” While not the worst bit of prose ever crafted, this phrase could definitely be a bit stronger and tighter. We can remove the adverb here altogether, simply by selecting a stronger verb. If this were my sentence, I would try using “crept” instead of “moved slowly.”
Some additional examples of this rule in action might include using:
“Revolver” instead of “large gun.” “Panted” instead of “breathed heavily.”
A word of caution is warranted here, as choosing an incredibly specific noun or verb can actually be counterproductive. Especially if its use is uncommon or archaic, or if its definition is obscure, a poorly inserted noun or verb can force your reader to stop and process (or even worse, to skim past or have to look up) its meaning, damaging the immersive quality of your story. The trick is to pick an evocative choice, but also one that fits and flows naturally into the rest of the surrounding narrative.
Eliminating redundant modifiers
Following in the same vein, let’s examine the following descriptive phrase: “He ran quickly to the door.”
The first thing you should notice is that the word quickly doesn’t add much here. It’s redundant, as running is inherently a quick action. To improve this sentence, we can use the previous rule and select a verb stronger than “ran.” “He sprinted (or perhaps sprang) for the door,” is more concise and the unnecessary modifier has been replaced by a tighter verb. Another option would be to simply remove the redundant adverb and let the word “run” stand on its own.
Now let’s take a look at a few more descriptions: “A loud clamor. A burning flame. A large mansion.”
Reading these should raise some immediate red flags for your inner-editor, and for good reason. Is there such a thing as a quiet clamor? Or a flame that does not burn? How about a small mansion? In each of these cases the adjective is redundant and unnecessary, offering nothing to the sentence other than increasing the word count. In most cases, you would just cut them out entirely. If you did want to modify these nouns, the intent should be to offer a new or more specific meaning that could not be conveyed by an unmodified word.
The nouns here are already fairly descriptive, so let’s try switching out the redundant adjectives with some precise modifiers instead. “A crackling fire, an explosive clamor, and a sprawling mansion.” Now each of the adjectives included serves to change or clarify the meaning of their paired noun. If this new meaning was not necessary for your story, you would instead cut out the modifier altogether. The trick here is to take a critical look at the relationship between an adverb/adjective and the noun/verb it modifies. Is the modifier granting the noun or verb a new meaning that clarifies or otherwise adds to the reader’s understanding? If the answer is not an enthusiastic yes, either replace the modifier or leave it on the cutting room floor.
Be especially wary of adding adverbs to your adjectives
Most of the time, if you already have an adjective in a sentence, tossing in an adverb is overdoing it. If you feel the desire to add one in, it is likely that your adverb wasn’t strong enough to begin with. Of special note, the word “really” and its synonyms are commonly overused by amateur writers. Two such offenders reside in the following sentence: “She placed the extremely cold ice into the incredibly hot water.” However, every now and again, such constructions do add a special meaning or flair to a bit of prose, so don’t feel like you have to eliminate adverb-adjective pairings 100% of the time (more like 95%). See the next entry in this series on dialogue for advice on (not) using adverbs with dialogue tags.
A few more rules to live by when crafting descriptive language:
Rule 2: Don’t choose unnecessarily complex words in general, but don’t use tepid qualifiers (or nouns and verbs) either.
This rule is all about picking the right level of specificity for your word choice. Take a look at the following sentences:
“The woman drove her car to the store. She bought some things and was nearly hit by a bus walking back through the parking lot.” And, “Zelda Sarah McGee drove her silver 2002 Subaru WRX to the Safeway market on 7th avenue. She bought two heads of iceberg lettuce and a bottle of cheap scotch and was almost impacted by a Greyhound bus while strolling past row A-7 of the parking lot.”
You should notice right away that neither version sounds very good. The reason why is simple. The first version is much too vague, while the second is too specific, containing too many details that are peripheral to the key events of the narrative. Let’s see if we can strike a better balance between these two extremes:
“Zelda McGee drove her Subaru to the Safeway market on 7th avenue. She bought two heads of lettuce and a bottle of cheap scotch and was almost hit by a Greyhound walking back through the parking lot.”
In this version, the specifics are saved for the core part of the scene (Zelda’s questionable shopping habits and her near miss). You could even remove Subaru and replace it with the more generic “car” without losing much here.
To help strike a balance between oversimplifying and overcomplicating your prose, allow me to suggest a pair of competing subrules. First: “Don’t use a big word when a small one will do,” and second: “Don’t use a vague word when a more specific word is stronger.” With a bit of practice, you will learn to find a balance with your word choice that will serve your story and help to immerse your reader within your narrative.
Picking strong nouns and vivid verbs
In general, the more important a person, place, or thing is to a narrative, the more specifically it should be named and described, while general terms are better suited when labeling elements remaining in the periphery or background. This is a good time to emphasize that each part of language plays an important role in a sentence. Nouns name and identify things, verbs reveal action, while modifiers help to restrict or clarify the meaning of verbs and nouns. A sentence is weakened if any of these fundamental components are too vague, preventing you from conveying the scene you are picturing in your mind effectively to your reader.
In general, nouns, verbs, and modifiers should both concise and evocative, reveling the atmosphere and action while staying out of the way of your reader’s direct attention. When drafting a scene, you should attempt to provide the details your audience needs to frame the situation clearly in their minds, without reminding them that they are reading words on a page (breaking the fourth wall.) This means that sometimes, when it is not a focal point of the narrative, a dog is just a dog and a car is just a car.
Don’t include adverbs and adjectives just to make your prose sound “pretty”
As I have mentioned several times now, adjectives and adverbs should only be included if they grant additional meaning to a phrase. If you want your prose to sound nicer, consider using stronger nouns and verbs instead. However, you should bear in mind that this rule applies equally to nouns and verbs themselves as well as to their paired modifiers.
Some words and phrases to be wary of in general
Really and very. Really and very get used all the time in real-world conversations, but can be considered “trap” words when crafting descriptive language, in that they (really) don’t add any meaning to their paired nouns and verbs. Observed in isolation, there is no practical difference between “cold” and “really cold,” or between “slow” and “very slow.” In each case, the descriptor is doing all of the work to begin with. If you wanted to grant these terms additional emphasis, you should instead switch to a stronger verb, perhaps “freezing and sluggish.”
Actually is another word that gets used in speech all the time, usually to add emphasis or to indicate contrast or surprise. However, in writing “actually” is normally just another filler word that adds little to a sentence. Don’t toss it in just because you would when speaking, but do feel free to include it in dialogue to show contrast. “I thought that Tom went out for ice-cream, but he was actually buying our engagement rings.”
Other words and phrases that can usually be cut without losing anything include: “Then,” “rather,” “extremely,” and “in order to.”
Rule 3: Avoid writing in the passive voice.
In the English language, all sentences are written in either a “passive” or “active” voice. When writing in the active voice, the person or object creating the action is mentioned first. While in a passive construction, the person or thing receiving the action comes first, followed by the actor, who is introduced by the preposition “by.” In general, you should be writing almost exclusively in the active voice, as the passive voice often sounds weak or ambiguous as to who is responsible for the action.
Let’s take a look at a few sentences, written in each of these voices:
- “Fred’s dog bit Sam’s hand,” vs. “Sam’s hand was bitten by Fred’s dog.”
- “Mary opened the door and walked through,” vs. “The door was opened and walked through by Mary.”
In each case, the second sentence is weaker for being written in the passive voice, with the objects receiving the action being elevated to the focal point of the sentence. Once you get into the habit of reducing your passive constructions, they become fairly easy to spot and remove.
However, using the passive voice is perfectly ok when:
- The actor is unknown or irrelevant: “The ruins were constructed in the third century.”
- You want to deliberately emphasize and shift focus to the object and away from the actor: “Electricity was discovered in 1759.”
Exercise: Cutting out your passive constructions
I recommend that you go through this exercise often during your early drafting, at least until you get out of the habit of writing in the passive voice. To begin, simply take a section of completed text and start scanning for passive constructions, keeping an eye out for the tell word “by.”
To change a passive sentence into an active one, rewrite the sentence so it starts with the actor instead of the recipient of the action. Before long, you should find yourself writing prose that is more concise, powerful, and precise naturally.
Rule 4: Don’t overuse metaphors and similes. Avoid cliché.
Similes and metaphors are both constructions of language that compare one thing to another, allowing you to evoke complex images in a remarkably few number of words.
A simile says that something X is “like” something Y. “The baby’s skin was soft like silk.” “Ella’s gaze was as cool as ice.”
While a metaphors transform something X directly into something Y. “Jim was a raging bull.” “Bob wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
Use metaphors and similes sparingly
Because they pack such evocative power, metaphors and similes should be used sparingly, reserved for when you want to emphasize something with an extra dollop of oomph. Used well, they can add considerably to your descriptive imagery. But use too many or fashion them in a clumsy manner, and similes and metaphors can ruin otherwise beautiful imagery. As with adjective and adverbs, when in doubt, cut them out.
“He was a cool as a cucumber.” “She had a heart of stone.” “His hands were slippery as an eel.”
What is the problem with each of the above sentences? They are cliché. They were once evocative similes and metaphors back when they were fresh and new, but by now have been used so many times that their impact has dulled. Using them will make your prose sound corny and amateur, so replace such clichéd constructions with new comparisons or remove them altogether by tightening your descriptive language.
Don’t mix metaphors or use two similes in the same sentence
Mixing metaphors or overusing similes can be painful to read, sucking all of the power out of your descriptions as your audience pauses to grimace at your questionable imagery. I honestly don’t have the heart to subject us both to some examples for this rule, but reading them in prose will leap out and sour a scene’s evocative power in much the same manner as when a musician is out of key or when a juggler drops his or her balls.
Rule 5: Vary the length and structure of your prose to keep it fresh.
No matter how well chosen your words and images, if you arrange them into only one or two sentence structures, you are going to bore your audience and weaken your descriptive power. Varying your prose helps to keep things fresh. You should vary almost every aspect of your novel to at least some degree (chapter length being the only standard that is fine to keep consistent if you prefer). But you should most certainly alternate the length of your individual subchapters and scenes, keeping some short and sweet, while rendering others longer and more epic. Within a given scene, you should mix up the length of your paragraphs and sentences as well. Some should be short. While others may continue on for a much longer period, containing significantly more information and embedded structure.
Once you begin to vary your prose, you should find that your writing will flow more smoothly across the page. Avoid using the same pattern of subject-verb parings by splitting and combining sentences as well as by inserting various descriptive elements. Mix up your dialogue and narrative as well, as large blocks of each can cause your story to lose focus and tension.
Rule 6: Remember to engage the senses, emotions, and the imagination.
When writing fiction, you are not merely relaying events to your reader. You are attempting to engage their imaginations, in order to evoke sensations and emotions within their mind’s eye. This means that every scene should contain at least some sensory details, emotional overtones, as well as places where the reader can flex their imagination. Leaving one or more of these components out of a scene will cause it to appear unbalanced or flat.
Rule 7: Choose details with the scene’s mood/atmosphere and purpose in mind.
When deciding which details to include in a scene’s descriptive elements, remember to keep in mind why you are writing that scene to being with. Each scene should possess a dominant emotional overtone (atmosphere) as well as a role in driving the narrative forwards. The details you include should enhance and reinforce the mood of the scene as well as help to highlight and frame those aspects of the narrative that are important to the plot. For more information on this process, check out my entry on scenecrafting 101.
Writing about people, places, and things
Writing about your characters
This next section has some advice regarding the process of writing about your characters, including: how to describe and name them, as well as how to reveal their personalities through concrete action.
I want you to take a moment to imagine that you are meeting someone new. Someone who you know little to nothing about. The first thing you are destined to take in as you initially lay eyes upon this person is their physical appearance. Now not every last detail of their feature and form will register right away, only that handful of salient details that first jumps out at you. As you get closer and take a longer look, you will soon form a first impression, again based primarily on this stranger’s appearance and dress, as well as any snippets of their conversations and behavior you managed to witness on your approach.
Now imagine that your eyes lock onto this person as they see you for the first time, and that they watch as you walk over, sit down beside them, introduce yourself, and strike up a conversation. Here too, you will quickly imply several aspects of their personality, starting before a greeting is even exchanged. By no means have you formed a deep insight into this person yet, but by now they have already made enough of an impression to begin to become a distinct individual in your mind.
In a manner that is similar to meeting a new person in the physical world, when you are describing a character in a story for the first time, it is best to focus on just a handful of revealing details regarding their personality and appearance. This allows the reader to fill in the gaps over time by using their imagination. If you attempt to capture every last freckle and wart right at the start, not only will you bore your audience to tears, you will have prevented them from allowing the character to come to life within the ultimate theater of their mind’s eye.
In addition to these few, well-chosen details, it is helpful to introduce (at least some of) the goals and drives of your characters as early on as possible. As we discussed in our previous entry on character arc, every character should have their own agenda, which plays out over the course of your main story and its various subplots. In general, it is best to set the stage for these subplots early on after introducing a new character, providing fertile ground for your story to develop as events progress.
Naming your characters
Some authors agonize for long hours over this step, browsing and discarding protracted lists of potential names, although most eventually decide on something they are happy with. This occurs because names are important. For even if they don’t make or break a given character all by themselves, they are still extremely helpful in allowing the reader to form a connection, for a well-chosen name will create a sense of immersion within the world of your novel. The names of your characters will begin to shape how the reader perceives them, so it is important to make them in some way revealing of their personality, or at least feel appropriate for the nature/genre of your story. After all, a reader will see that name appear in print again and again across a journey of hundreds of pages, so you are doing yourself a favor by choosing well.
Always avoid extremely long or difficult to pronounce names, as they will break immersion as the reader is forced to try and puzzle them out time and time again. If you do want to include an exotic name like Xenagridrax Vgrt Pzziq the great red dragon (what a mouthful of gibberish and total page stopper), establish a nickname for that character right from the start that you will use in dialogue as well as most of the times you refer to them (Xena or Zena in the case of our hypothetical, multisyllabic dragon). Avoid including too many characters with similar sounding names (such as the sisters, Jena, Janet, and Jane) as it can make the reader have to work to remember who you are talking about, which also interferes with your narrative and breaks immersion.
Revealing personality through action
So how do you go about revealing the motivations, personalities, and perceptions of a character once you have begun to describe them? One method is simply to explain the characters directly to your reader via exposition. However, this is a fairly uninteresting solution that will almost always come off sounding forced. This is because when you are attempting to display your characters’ inner worlds, showing is vastly better than telling. So then, how do you go about showing your characters to your reader? The most natural vehicle for this revelatory process is through action, as your characters go about the business of moving through a scene.
In the end, we form lasting opinions and judge other people based on their decisions and deeds rather than their words alone. This is why revealing a character’s personality through action is superior to using exposition or monologue. Do try to keep your characters’ personalities internally consistent, but don’t be afraid to have them do something unexpected, for they may have hidden sides the reader was unaware of until that moment. This is a useful tool for creating what I call “artful misdirection,” when the reader is led to an incomplete understanding of a situation or character for dramatic effect. Another way to highlight the traits of a given character is to place them side by side with individuals who possess contrasting traits, a technique known as using a foil in literature.
Character relationships and interactions
If your novel is going to be remotely interesting, then not all of your characters are going to get along or share a common goal. Some will gel and others will fight. Some will work together naturally as a team, while others will cooperate like flaming oil poured over water. Depending on the unique relationships of your characters, the dynamics of various groups might change considerably when certain individuals are present or absent. Well-developed relationships between your characters add realism and depth to your story and can help pave the way for including exciting plot twists and subplots. Additionally, these interactions are extremely helpful in revealing the inner worlds of your characters to your reader.
For example, we will learn to dislike someone who is needlessly cruel to others almost immediately, while someone who stops to lend a hand to those in need will likely find a way into our hearts. While it is not necessary to create complex webs detailing the attitudes and emotions of each character towards one another, it is important to know who gets along and who strikes sparks. Who forms a cohesive team, and who competes needlessly. Who likes or is romantically interested in whom, and who makes one another’s skin crawl.
Revealing the fullness of central characters over time
As I discussed earlier, when a reader is first introduced to a character, they will tend to form a stereotypical representation of that individual in their minds. Although you may want to try and dispel this illusion right away, to reveal the rich depth and texture you have woven into your characters, resist this impulse to over-explain. This is because violating the expectations a reader has built up early on is a powerful way add depth to your central cast. As the reader becomes more familiar with a given character’s range of behaviors as well as their contradictions, they can begin to form a more meaningful connection to them. While you don’t want your characters to appear inconsistent, having them surprise the reader by showing a side they hadn’t come across yet can be a powerful and emotion-generating tool.
Perhaps your kindly mother has a vindictive streak, or maybe a high school bully tenderly nurtures the family dog when no one is around. One caveat however, by the middle of your story, the reader should have a more or less complete picture of your main characters (as long as they were introduced near the beginning). It will feel out of place to show new and hidden dimensions several hundred pages in (unless of course, this is a major plot twist you have been deliberately leading towards that is well-supported by the preceding narrative). If you do chose to hide aspects of your characters from the reader early on, it is useful to sprinkle in a few hints well before the big reveal, so that someone reading the novel for a second time can appreciate the clues they can now spot thanks to their superior knowledge of what is coming down the road.
Writing about settings
I lifted these next two sections from my earlier installment on setting back the planning process, because it’s worth mulling over a second time before you begin drafting the bulk of your pose (and also so no one missed it if they haven’t read that section just yet). But do make sure to check out the rest of that post if you haven’t for some great exercises on generating descriptions of your settings.
Describing a setting for the first time
As when describing characters to your readers for the first time, the first time that you introduce an important setting to your audience, you are going to want to highlight enough details to provide them with a complete picture. I want to emphasize that describing a setting should never upstage the characters and events of your story themselves. A setting provides context and atmosphere to a scene, but should not get in the way and interrupt the pace of the action. This means you should avoid barraging your reader with long lists of details, as this is actually counterproductive to engaging their imagination. Instead, focus on a handful of vibrant particulars, presented in the order that a given character notices them. You won’t need to include such a lengthy description of this setting the next time you use it in a scene, so feel free to go on for at least several sentences as you introduce the environment to you reader. That way, when you return to it later, you can refer back to a relatively small handful of details in order to refresh this description in their mind.
When working out these early portrayals of settings, try to move from the general to the specific, the same way that a reader’s mind would process the location if they were to walk through it for the first time. Start with tangible, concrete details, the things that a character can touch, hear, and see. Tabletops and paving stones. A scent of brine and the sound of waves lapping against the pier. Then move on to more nebulous or abstract details that are more a part of the present atmosphere than the enduring physical environment. The hint of a coming storm in the air. A creaking sound that is out of place. Notes of tension thrumming throughout the crowd filling the street.
Bear in mind that the descriptions of your settings should match the skills and familiarity of the point of view character who is experiencing it. You would describe a busy workshop quite differently if your character were visiting it for the first time as opposed to being in charge of the shop. The chaos of industry might be distracting bordering on overwhelming to a newcomer, but should reveal a hidden order to someone who belongs there. A rack of tools might just be a jumble of wood and metal to the uninitiated, while each device would possess a distinct purpose and identity to a craft master.
Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion
This is a fairly common piece of advice, but since it is such a good one, I wanted to make sure to include it here as well. The idea is that your readers will have a hard time digesting block paragraphs of description all in one go, so it is helpful for you to distribute details evenly across the introduction to a scene. A powerful technique to achieve this outcome is to describe your settings while your characters are walking (running, strolling, dancing, or fleeing for their very lives) through them, using the pace of the action to spread out your descriptive attributes.
For example, say you have a rural farmer visiting the big city for the first time. Rather than listing everything that he witnesses all at once from the moment he steps through the city gates, try dropping in shorter segments of detail as he continues to explore the setting. Given his humble upbringing, our farmer might reach down and touch the bricks in the road, marveling at their red hue and evenness. As he continues toward the market, he might stop to admire the sheer number of people going about their daily lives, so many more than he has met over the course of his entire life. Instead of merely describing the various shops and merchant stalls, lay out how wondrous and luxurious the goods on display are. How wealthy the (modest) shopkeepers appear and how opulent their goods seem to our farmer’s eyes. Of course, a character who grew up in this hypothetical city would be completely used to the sights of commerce and trade by now, and you would describe them with a sense of casual familiarity if this was your PoV character instead.
Allow your narrative description to flow naturally as your PoV character moves across a setting and scene. Think about which details he or she would notice from these various sub-settings first, as well as which would only sink in after some time. Throughout this process, try and use active verbs rather than simple lists. Our farmer might have to detour around a crowd or fight his way through it as opposed to merely glancing at the throng while walking on by. Feel the warmth of the morning sunlight on his skin rather than simply observing the time of day. By putting your descriptions in motion, your reader can more easily imagine your settings, enhancing immersion and allowing the unique ambiance of your fictional environments to shine through.
Writing about things
Although we have covered describing objects a fair amount earlier in this entry, here is one final concept for you to consider.
Personification (a form of metaphor) occurs when you take an inanimate object or force of nature and provide it with human qualities. “Bob always loved a good storm, but his feelings were not mutual. For one day while walking through a meandering summer shower, he was stricken down by a vindictive bolt of lightning.” Personification can be a powerful way to infuse a description with emotion, assisting in creating the atmosphere of a scene as well as foreshadowing. Objects (as well as settings) can be imbued with personality, emotion, and intent. In general, personification is merely a projection of the feelings that arise from your characters when they encounter something in a scene, so let their emotions set the stage for the traits you imbue in the world around them.
Showing vs. telling
Before we get to our final discussion on exposition and summary, I wanted to bring up the old adage of showing vs. telling. I feel like this discussion is often oversimplified, coming off as if showing is always good and telling is always bad. Well, as I hope you will come to agree as we proceed through the next section, the construction of showing vs. telling isn’t all that helpful to begin with. This is because both showing and telling are important parts of constructing an engaging narrative, and you honestly need to know how to do both well in order to write a solid tale.
It is true however, that telling when you should be showing will prevent your descriptions from fully activating the imaginations of your audience, so it is generally a good idea to be on the lookout for places in your story where you are telling a bit too much (or not showing enough). On the other hand, you are going to run into problems if you treat “show don’t tell” as a rule that is set in stone, which must be applied to every scrap of description within your story.
In practice, telling and showing are like owning two different lenses for a camera. Both are vital tools that when used in the correct manner, each provide a powerful means of communicating with your reader. Telling, via exposition or summary, is useful when:
- Relaying a piece of the story the reader is already familiar with.
- Characters are traveling from one location to another.
- Showing the passage of time.
- Summarizing a conversation.
- Balancing out sections of detailed description.
- Relaying a lengthy situation or series of events, when the individual pieces are not vital to the narrative.
- Providing small bits of background information (a frame of reference) in the middle of a scene.
- On the other hand, showing is generally more powerful than telling when:
- Conveying the emotions or mental state of a character.
- Establishing the atmosphere or mood of a setting.
- Introducing a major character or setting for the first time.
- Relaying action that is important to the plot.
- Raising or lowering the level of tension in the narrative.
In general, telling is best saved for communicating information, while showing helps to build empathy and tension, allowing the emotions of your characters to vicariously affect the reader.
This means that when you are attempting to slow down the pace and get granular with your descriptions, you should try to avoid “telling” verbs. Rather than using verbs such as “thought, heard, or saw,” simply provide the descriptive details in motion as the character moves through the scene, as these terms will generally draw a reader out of the middle of the action and break immersion.
The skillful use of exposition
With telling vs. showing out of the way, it’s time to take a look at two times when you will want to use telling language deliberately: narrative exposition and indirect exposition.
Narrative exposition occurs when an author inserts various background information into the middle of a story. This generally includes important context regarding a characters’ prior experiences, major plot events, or settings. This information can be front-loaded into the beginning of a scene, but is usually more skillfully executed when dispersed throughout a longer scene involving at least some action.
Indirect exposition, on the other hand, gradually exposes a reader to the world and characters over time, building up their understanding without dosing them with a hearty dollop of raw information. This is usually done via conversations, inner monologue, flashbacks, books and television open/running in the background, or side comments from the narrator. Indirect, or hidden exposition, is a great way of filtering information to your audience, allowing them to remain immersed within the world of your story without being forced to take a break to digest a mini-lecture. Using this technique, information is generally provided to the reader when it becomes relevant, preventing it from feeling out of place within the overall flow of the narrative.
Many authors have an instinctual desire to share a ton of information with the reader as early on as possible, rather than attempting to place it where it possesses the most relevance. But unless you are setting up an early event that requires this information being provided to the reader beforehand, you should make the attempt to kneed your exposition into your story over time, rather than forcing your audience to drink from a fire hose. Well-crafted exposition should feel like a natural part of the scene that includes it, not a temporary detour where the tension and pacing of the narrative is put on pause while you lay down a layer of facts. Remember that creating a flowing story is a joint effort shared between your descriptions and your readers’ imaginations. You don’t need to drown them in detail in order for them to be able to put the pieces of your world and its history together in their minds. In fact, once you learn to you drop in the right amount of exposition into the middle of the action, you can build and flesh out your world in the minds of your audience without them even being aware you are doing so.
So then, how do you decide how much exposition to include, when, and in what form?
In general, most exposition is going to involve the past experiences of a given character, included when those details are necessary to fully understand the impact of important events occurring in the here and now. With that in mind, it is always best to include exposition in a form that serves the plot rather than competes with it, often by including a line or two in the middle of the action, parceled out as that information becomes important for the reader’s understanding of what is happening. Skillful exposition can occur in dialogue, flashbacks, inner monologue, or brief statements from the narrator.
The next time you pick up a book, see if you can spot the exposition, as well as how the author placed it within the larger narrative. Before long, you should get a feel for the right balance and begin to include helpful bits of exposition naturally in the middle of the action, all without breaking your story’s pacing or your audience’s immersion.
That’s all for this entry on drafting descriptive text. See you in the next section when we will learn to conquer another key form of writing, dialogue.