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.
You might not have realized it yet, but today is an exciting day. For today is the day you are officially ready to move beyond the planning process and begin growing the word count of your novel at a rapid pace. At long last, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and begin drafting the bulk of your book, transforming the hearty pile of characters, settings, and events you have constructed into complete sentences and chapters. Although you may have already sketched out some early scenes, it has come time to make some concrete choices regarding the structure and style of your words themselves.
Over the course of this section, you are going to make some important decisions. Decisions that will help to shape the reader’s experience of your story in a number of critical ways. The first task that lies before you as you enter the drafting process, is picking which point of view style and character(s) you want to use as well as the tense of your prose.
Writing is a diverse art form and as such, you have a number of options to choose from when considering the best point of view for your narrative. In today’s entry on viewpoint, I will help you to unpack and ponder each of these options, explain how each operates in the context of storytelling, and then help you to decide which approach is the best fit for the novel you are writing.
Why picking the right point of view is vital to the success of your novel
The point of view you select will have a major impact on the drafting of your novel. In fact, you can’t do much drafting at all without first committing to a style you will be using throughout the entirety of your story. Fortunately, most novels tend to lend themselves naturally to one of these formats, so by the time you arrive at the end of this section, you will likely have a good idea which one is right for you. A word of warning is warranted here however, as changing tense or narration style once you have already drafted a large number of words is a huge chore and an easy way to lose momentum, so try not to change them once you start without a compelling reason to do so.
The PoV you settle on will have a considerable impact on your reader’s experience as well, filtering how much and what kind of information they receive regarding your world and characters. Before we cover each PoV style in depth, here is an overview of the four types of viewpoints commonly used in writing:
- First person point of view: First person is the “I” of storytelling. The character is telling his or her own story, conveying these experiences directly to the reader.
- Second person point of view: In the second person, the story is addressed to “you.” This PoV is not commonly used in fiction (as opposed to say letter, essay, or blog writing), but it is still useful to understand how it works.
- Limited third person point of view: In the third person, things happen to “she” and “he.” Limited third person is by far the most common PoV used in fiction. In the limited format, the narrator or “camera” is usually placed in or near the characters’ heads, allowing you to convey their thoughts and emotions directly.
- Omniscient third person point of view: In this version of the third person style, the narrator knows whatever the writer wishes, including the thoughts of the characters alongside information regarding events they know nothing about.
We will cover each of these point of view styles in greater detail in just a moment, but before we do, here are some general questions to consider while you think things through:
- Which of my character’s eyes do I want my reader to be looking through?
- Do I want to share their thoughts and feelings directly?
- How closely do I want my narration and description to match my characters’ manner of thinking and speaking?
Two key choices for deciding on a point of view
1. Single vs. multiple PoV novels
Regardless of your preferred style, the first PoV you chose will usually be the story’s protagonist. Assuming that you follow this convention, you now have to decide whether to use this single PoV for the entire novel, or if you want to use additional members of your cast as viewpoint characters as things progress. As I said, for single point of view story, the protagonist will almost always be the chosen PoV. However, as with any rule, there are many successful stories that break it. One famous exception is with Watson being the PoV for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Even if you do decide to use multiple PoV characters, one (likely your protagonist) is going to be used first and (at least a bit) more often than the rest.
So here comes your first major set of choices. Namely:
- Which character will you use as your primary PoV?
- Will you stick with this PoV for the entire novel, or will you utilize multiple viewpoints?
- Which members of your cast are best suited to be your viewpoint characters?
Here are some ideas to consider while thinking it over:
Reasons to use a single point of view
- To build a powerful bond between the reader and main character.
- To limit what the reader knows.
- To create a feeling of intimacy and immediacy.
- The narrator is the main character (first person).
Reasons to use multiple points of view
- To control what information the reader has access to at given points throughout a story.
- To build suspense by cutting away at key moments (cliffhangers).
- To add breadth and continuity to longer stories.
- To divide a longer story or chapter into more easily digestible portions.
- To provide multiple interpretations of events.
Writing a story with multiple viewpoints
A multi-PoV story includes a narrative in which more than one central character is used as the story’s viewpoint. In each case, the “camera” of the narrative is placed over the shoulder or behind the eyes of a given character, relaying their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge directly (or implicitly in some cases) to the reader. The main differences between writing a novel with multiple PoVs and a singular one include:
- In multi-PoV stories, the viewpoint changes at key moments (usually after chapters or subchapters).
- Multi-PoV stories tend to include more subplots, as each viewpoint character comes with their own goals and obstacles.
- In a single PoV novel, the reader spends all of their time with a single character, while in multi-PoV stories the narrative is dispersed across the various characters. This allows you to cast a wider net at the cost of some depth.
- Multiple point of view stories are a bit trickier to structure and balance, but it’s not that bad.
So then, how do you come to a decision if one approach doesn’t leap out at you right from the start? It really comes down to asking yourself the following question: “Can I tell this story the way I want using a single point of view, or does it feel too limiting?” Or put another way, don’t use multiple points of view unless you feel it adds to the reader’s experience.
Here are some additional things to consider if you are leaning towards a multiple point of view novel:
Dividing the page count up between your cast
In some multi-PoV stories, each viewpoint character receives about the same number of pages. While in others, one or two will dominate the stage and the rest are treated as garnish and filigree. There is no right or best way to divide up the screen time for your PoV characters, but I recommend that whichever PoV you plan on using first be one of the ones that will be used for a fair portion of your book. You don’t want to give the reader whiplash by head-hopping during the early parts of your story, so it’s better to add to the PoV count slowly, returning to familiar individuals and events frequently until the new characters don’t feel like strangers anymore.
Managing viewpoint changes
Regardless of the total number of viewpoint characters, whenever you change who the camera is following, you will want to make the transition as clear and painless for your reader as possible. This means that it should be obvious almost immediately which character is being used for the present PoV, preferably from the first sentence of a new chapter or scene. This is important for a number of reasons, chief among them being that whenever a reader thinks are reading about one character, only to discover three pages in that action was really following another, it is an incredibly frustrating and immersion breaking experience.
The easiest way to switch up the point of view is to either start a new chapter or to use a full page break to indicate a new subchapter. However you decide to manage PoV changes, keep the format consistent throughout your novel and your readers will thank you for it. Finally, whenever you do change a PoV, remember to try to frame what is happening from the perspective and life experience of the present character.
Exercise: Deciding which member(s) of your cast will become viewpoint characters
Your first big choice in the drafting process is to decide whether you want to use a single or multiple points of view. Making this decision involves asking yourself some of the same questions you will need to ponder when deciding which of your central characters to use when writing a multi-PoV novel.
So how do you begin to decide which of your central characters to use as viewpoint characters? Start by asking yourself the following questions when considering each option:
- Does this character add a unique and valuable perspective to my story?
- Could another character relate these events equally powerfully?
- Does this character have a vibrant subplot to add to my overall narrative?
- Would my story be weaker or unchanged by eliminating this PoV?
When deciding between two or more promising contenders, ask yourself:
- Which character tells the main story best?
- Which allows me to be as creative as I want?
- Which PoV feels more natural to me as a writer?
- Which feels more fun to read?
- Whose voice sounds the most authentic and powerful?
- Who possesses the most compelling subplots and character arc?
- Does this character’s journey resonate with my novel’s theme?
Ultimately, you should decide on a selection of viewpoint characters who each offer a unique voice, as well as a perspective no other character can provide. You will also want to make sure that when placed side by side in the overall narrative, these voices come together to strike a tone that feels balanced and authentic for the story you are trying to tell. In general, you want your reader to develop a bond to each of your viewpoint characters, so if you do decide to use more than a handful, start with a small cast of and expand the total gradually over time. Another good option is to just pick two or three PoV characters and then stick with that initial bunch the entire way through.
Using minor characters as PoV characters
One variation in multiple viewpoint novels is to use the viewpoint of minor characters for brief sections. This can be an interesting way to offer new information to your reader, but should be used sparingly for the same reasons you don’t want to dilute your narrative with too many PoVs in general. When using this technique, try to keep these sections short, so the reader doesn’t begin to treat the PoV character as a main character in their mind.
Reasons to use minor characters’ PoV include:
- When important action takes place somewhere none of the main characters are.
- To show the impact of a situation on the “everyday” people who live there.
- When someone needs to die, but not have it be a central moment in the story.
A few additional suggestions for writing multi-PoV novels
1. Take the time to fully develop each viewpoint character before writing from their perspective.
This is where all of the work you did back in planning stage really begins to pay off. Because you are going to need to possess a strong grasp your characters’ life histories and worldviews, as well as the things that are important to them, before you can write convincingly from their perspectives. This means you need to have a good idea of how each viewpoint character thinks and processes the world around them, their core personality, what they tend to pay attention to, habitual responses, etc.
2. Attempt to develop a unique voice for each viewpoint.
One reason why developing your characters’ perspectives is so important is that it enables you to grant each of them a unique voice when they take their turn as a viewpoint character. Giving your viewpoint characters their own voice means that when you write from their perspective, the narrative will shift to reflect their present thoughts and feelings, as well as how they view the world in general. This helps to ensure that each PoV sounds and feels different from one another to your reader, allowing each to contribute to the story in different ways. Writing from a character’s unique voice will also help the reader more readily identify who the camera is following. After all, the entire reason you chose to tell a part of the story from their perspective was due to the unique qualities, outlook, and worldview of that character. A well-developed voice shines through in dialogue and inner monologue, character interaction, as well as in what aspects of a situation or environment a given character focus on.
3. Have a clear purpose for each viewpoint choice when constructing a scene
When drafting a scene, sometimes only one character’s voice will work, making the selection for that section easy. However, other times a scene could potentially be drafted from more than one viewpoint character’s eyes, meaning you have to decide which possibility is best for your story. Reasons to choose one character over another might include:
- One character possesses critical information the others do not.
- One character has more to gain or lose.
- One character’s viewpoint best reinforces the atmosphere of the scene.
- One character feels the same way you want your readers to.
4. Cut down on excessive head-hopping
In multiple viewpoint novels it is important not to dilute your narrative with frequent or unnecessary perspective changes, as well as not to confuse your audience as to who the camera is following. Head-hopping occurs when changing the PoV is distracting or ambiguous to your reader, damaging immersion and their connection to your characters. In general, it is best to keep each chapter or subchapter in the perspective of a single character (although of course, well-written exceptions abound). In general, try not to switch PoV unless doing so will help balance or add something to the story.
5. Avoid redundancy
No one likes to revisit the same information over and over during the course a story. This means you should generally avoid revisiting the same scene using multiple viewpoints. This also means you should avoid telling your reader the same information more than once or twice, even if each character is learning it for the first time. Using tools like exposition and summary to compress these moments will help to keep your story fresh and the reader turning those pages.
First vs. third person
Once you have your first big decision out of the way, it’s time for another major choice, namely whether to use first or third person for your narrative, as well as the present or past tense. If your novel will feature multiple PoVs, then at least one choice is easy, as you will almost certainly be using the third person (using the first person doesn’t really work in this case, although some stories do mange to mix a bit of third and first person together in their narrative without any problems).
For a single PoV story, the decision may be less obvious, as each option offers advantages over one another in certain contexts. As with so many other things in writing, there is no wrong choice, but it is still important to pick the option that best suits the story you are trying to tell. Let’s take a closer look at each option and their variants, as well as the advantages and limitations of each approach.
First person point of view
The first person viewpoint is unique to the written word, rising to popularity as the autobiographical story format began to sell. The first person is an intimate, limited format, allowing the writer to focus on telling a story from a single perspective the entire way through. When reading a story in the first person, it feels like the viewpoint character is speaking directly to you, relaying their experiences as if they were sitting down beside you.
The first person is an inherently limited format, as the narrator only has access to their own thoughts and feelings, meaning that there are many things about the larger situation unfolding around them they know nothing about (or even have a completely wrong understanding of). However, this restricted, biased telling of a story can also be a powerful way of conveying a narrative, one in which a reader can easily form a connection to the protagonist and their journey, as they have full access to their private, inner world.
Strengths: Using the first person can be a powerful format for novels featuring a person vs. self central conflict, as the protagonist’s inner world is already the central focus of the story. It can also be useful when the story relies on the character not knowing the full truth, such as mysteries and horror stories.
Weaknesses: As the narrative consists of only things the PoV character experiences firsthand, it can be difficult to convey information regarding events beyond their knowledge. A first person story is also rather restrictive as to the number and nature of subplots contained, as your reader gains considerably less access to the wants and needs of other people than they would using a multi-PoV format.
Third person point of view
As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of stories involving multiple viewpoints are written in the third person, as the first person “I” doesn’t really make sense in this format. Furthermore, the third person easily grants the narrator access to the thoughts and feelings of multiple individuals, and diving into a variety of viewpoints will feel completely natural to your reader when using it.
When using a single PoV, the third person can still offer some advantages. While it may not feel quite as intimate as the first person, it gives an author an opportunity to occasionally set the camera in places other than behind the protagonist’s eyes. One common way of doing this is to position the camera somewhere in the scene before the protagonist arrives. Another it to leave it behind for a few paragraphs in order to show what happens after the viewpoint character’s exit. You can also increase the “distance” of the camera at will when using the third person, zooming all the way into the protagonist’s heart and brain, or out to watch things progress from several feet away (or even further in the distance). In general, using the third person grants an author more freedom, as you can still provide information to the reader that the viewpoint character is not aware of.
One unique option when using the third person in a single PoV novel is setting the scene with what I call the “wide angle shot.” An example might go something like this:
The main character is about to enter a deserted mansion as the sun sets. The scene begins from a hundred feel up in the air, describing the manor grounds, the fading light, and a hint of storm brewing on the horizon. Then the camera drops down, giving us a closer look at the ominous exterior of the building. The action starts as the main character’s car arrives and parks under a streetlight and we get to watch as they nervously approach. Once the character is standing in front of the main gate, the camera jumps behind their eyes, now telling the story from a “close” perspective as they knock on the door.
This “close” version of the third person offers some of the same advantages as using the first person. You can provide the character’s thoughts and emotions directly to the reader, and the tone of the narrative can shift to match their patterns of thought and speech.
Third person PoV styles
In the unlimited omniscient third person PoV, the narrator is effectively “god,” in that the viewpoint character (or narrator) has unrestricted access to everything about the characters, world, and plot. In a sense, when using the unlimited third person, you have transformed the camera into a character, one that may have as much personality as your core cast, or one that may attempt to tell the story from a more neutral perspective. A common place where you see this format utilized, is when the narrator is one of the main characters involved in the plot, but is telling the story from sometime in the future, possessing full knowledge of the events that will soon unfold. This results in your story effectively splitting the PoV character into two separate components, their present character and future narrator selves.
The unlimited viewpoint offers you infinite freedom to place the camera anywhere you choose and to provide any information you wish directly to your audience. However, it comes at the cost of intimacy and voice and runs the risk of making it more difficult for your readers to bond with your cast. It is most useful in novels with complex plots featuring numerous moving parts. Where in order to understand the big picture, the reader needs to be filled in on events occurring in many places simultaneously. If you do decide to use it, I suggest limiting each scene (chapter or subchapter) to following a single character in order to maintain cohesion and focus and to make it easier for your audience to keep track of the action.
Advantages: Unlimited freedom to tell any part of the story from any angle you choose. Useful when the narrator is telling a story from their past or when the reader needs to be provided with information that none of the central characters possess.
Disadvantages: It can be challenging to maintain focus and tension using this format. It may also make it more difficult for your readers to bond with your central characters.
This is the viewpoint style that will likely be the most familiar to you, as it is used for the vast majority of novels. In it, the camera is placed over the shoulder or behind the eyes of one character at a time, granting the reader limited access to their thoughts and feelings.
Advantages: This is a highly flexible narration style, allowing you to work from both up close and far away while exploring the stories of multiple characters.
Disadvantages: Slightly less freedom than the unlimited omniscient viewpoint. Less intimacy than the first person PoV.
Wait, what about the second person?
Although I did mention it above, it is highly unlikely that you will be using second person much if at all in your novel. While some inventive stories do manage to use it effectively (starting chapters with brief, first person “letters” for example), the second person doesn’t really tend to work well for full-length novels. You do see it sometimes in exposition, when a narrator directly addresses the audience, as well as in children’s’ choose-your-own-adventure novels. You might also have noticed that I tend to drop into the second person fairly frequently when writing this blog.
Past vs. present tense
Now that you have decided between a single and multiple point of view, and between the first and third person, there is one last thing to consider as far as the shape of your text is concerned: tense.
Most stories, regardless of viewpoint style, use the past tense (“I ran to the store. She opened the door.”). Present tense, (“I run to the store. She opens the door,”) provides a stronger sense of immediacy (everything is happening right now) and is generally only used for first person perspective stories, although, once again, for every rule there are many stories that successfully break it.
Exercise: Choosing a point of view style and tense
By now, you have hopefully decided on how many and which of your central characters you want to use as viewpoint characters. Now it’s time to commit to a PoV style and tense.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are using a multi-PoV style, you will be almost certainly be using the third person, but you still need to decide on a limited vs. omniscient narration style, as well as present vs. past tense. If you are going to stick with a single PoV, you will need to decide between first and third person, as well as present vs. past tense.
In order to help you decide, I want you to try writing a short scene involving several of your characters. Don’t worry about the quality of the action/dialogue for this exercise, as this scene does not need to be included in your novel. After you complete a first draft, first look and see what style you chose initially, as you may very well want to stick with it going forwards. But if you are still undecided, go ahead and rewrite the scene in the other tenses/styles you are considering. This means trying out present vs. past tense (John drove to the bar and went inside. John drives to the bar and goes inside.) As well as first vs. third person (I drove to the drycleaner. Bob drove to the drycleaner).
This means you might have to write up to four drafts when considering all options for a single PoV novel. As far as limited vs. omniscient third person goes, stick with limited unless your narrator is telling the story from the future (or somehow possesses otherworldly knowledge), or it is critical for you to be able to directly provide details to your readers that none of the characters or settings could otherwise deliver.
Final thoughts on selecting a point of view
Choosing a PoV that suits the genre of your story
As I alluded to above, most authors find that only one of these perspectives lends itself well to the story they are trying to tell. In my own works of epic sci-fi/fantasy, only the limited third person really works for my large cast of viewpoint characters (although I do use a neutral unlimited omniscient PoV in just a few places to establish atmosphere and foreshadow). Conversely, an unlimited omniscient narrator doesn’t really work well for horror or mystery stories, as it is hard to build suspense when the narrator already knows “who done it” or the truth behind the supernatural entity.
What to do if you do decide to change tense or viewpoint style part way through
I warned you this wouldn’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. You basically have to go through the entire draft line by line (several times) and change each relevant word. One tip I do have to offer is to use the find function of your word processer to make sure that you caught each instance of a word. However, be careful when using the replace all function, as some of the instances might not need to be changed (embedded in dialogue, etc.)
That’s all for this entry on PoV and tense, now it’s time to head over to the next section, where we will be discussing drafting descriptive text.
Most people tend to think of planning as something that happens before they start writing a book, but as I explained in my post on getting organized and getting started, alternate cycles of planning, drafting, and revising occur frequently throughout the course of a writing a novel. Now sometimes a good scene will get drafted without being extensively planned out ahead of time. And it is true that more planning tends to happen near the start of a novel, while the end phase is heavy on cycles of revision. However, familiarizing yourself and then taking advantage of the planning tools and exercises provided in this section will prove valuable not only at the start of your project, but at every stage along the way.
I don’t intend to rehash the classic planner vs. panster debate here, but I will suggest that each of the topics below are vital to the completion of a successful novel, regardless of how you internalize and approach each component. Furthermore, you will want to devote some time to pondering and making each of these concepts your own, whether or not you prefer to draft some early scenes before tackling planning in depth. As such, I sincerely believe that many of these exercises should prove useful for anyone, regardless of how much they prefer to draft by the seat of their pants or how much prior writing experience they have under their belt.
With that out of the way, welcome once again to my guide on the planning process. Check out the following sections to get started on planning out your novel today!
To get started on planning and then drafting your novel, you are going to need to come up with some promising ideas first. This section contains advice and exercises for inventing and developing key aspects of your characters, settings, and plot, as well as some general advice on how to capture your ideas while they are still fresh in your mind.
No novel would be compete without a cast of engaging characters. This section will first help you to come up with preliminary character sketches. Then I will provide some tools to enhance these rough-hewn individuals by adding additional details and backstories, granting breadth and depth to your protagonist and other important members of your cast.
Now that you have a few characters in the works and have begun to round and flesh them out, it’s time to take a look at a second fundamental narrative component, setting. Vibrant settings are vital to creating an immersive and engaging novel. This section will help you to develop your settings as well as generate some of the early descriptions that you will incorporating into your novel.
Now it’s time for the most labor intensive stage in planning out your novel, deciding on the structure of your story and then organizing key events in your plot. This section will help you to understand and then choose from a number of classic plot structures, proving you with the tools you will need to customize them for your own story. It will also cover key concepts such as tension, conflict, and how to set up the climax of you novel.
With characters, settings, and plot out of the way, it’s time to take a look at the final fundamental narrative component of storytelling, theme. Theme can be a bit tricky to wrap your brain around at first, but this section will help you to understand the concept as well as provide exercises intend to develop core themes for use in your novel.
Welcome to the end of the planning phase and our culminating exercise. This is the last thing you will need to do before you are ready to begin drafting in earnest. These exercises will help you to generate and map out your plot as well as to add background details to your world and its history. Included within are a variety of tools that will assist with plotting, pacing, and organizing your story.
Welcome back, I hope you are ready for today’s entry, as it contains an especially exciting activity. You have finally made it to the end of the planning phase and are ready to begin our culminating exercise, the last thing you will need to do before you are prepared to start drafting the majority your text.
Over the last several stages, you have put considerable work into fleshing out your characters and settings and have begun to make critical decisions regarding your story’s tension, central conflict, and pacing. Now it’s time to take a step back and look at the overall progression of your novel from a bird’s eye view. We are going to take everything you have done so far and put it side by side, so that you can begin to develop the chronology of your world and mull over the structure of your plot as a single unit.
The exercises below will delve into the details of orchestrating the overall shape of your plot, but first I am going to provide you with a general orientation to the tools of plotlines and timelines.
Plotlines and timelines
For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the word timeline when describing the chronology of your fictional universe. The significant events that helped to shape and change your world, set in the order they occurred on the calendar. Other authors might call this a plotline, an outline, or even a storyboard. However, this timeline is not the same construct as the order of your plot, which might chop up the timeline via flashbacks, premonitions, and other narrative devices. I will use the word plotline to describe the ordered sequence that the scenes of your novel occur in, the same manner in which a reader experiences your story.
Plotlines differ from timelines in that a timeline is continuous. Day by day, hour by hour, year by year, the events of your world unfold to the ticking of the clock, just as they do in real life. Your story itself will only include a limited selection of this background information, filtered by the thoughts, conversations, and actions of your PoV character(s). A plotline will commonly have gaps lying between scenes where time passes, or might even split the narrative to describe multiple events occurring simultaneously. The length and pace of your individual scenes can vary considerably as well. Several thousand words could easily describe mere minutes or the turning of seasons. You will often begin your plotline somewhere in the middle of the timeline of your story. It might not even be completely clear when in the timeline the narrative is taking place.
Your timeline itself should possess no such ambiguity. It is a tool for you, the author, enabling you to take a look at the entirety of the story you have created side by side, from a mile up in the air. The purpose of developing your timeline is for consistency and perspective, so that you know what happened in your world in what order (as well as what is happening simultaneously in split-plotline narratives). It is also helpful to know what major events are coming up next when you are drafting your novel, just to keep an eye on your pacing. Although you don’t need to go crazy and develop an extensive history for your world you might never use, your timeline should always be complete enough to show you what happened before the events of your novel began. How the world and the lives of your main characters reached the point they were at when your tale started. You should also have some idea of how the resolution of your novel plays out into the future, even if you don’t choose to share these details with your reader.
Remember that while you want your plotlines and timelines to be as complete as possible before you begin drafting in earnest, they are still works in progress. Tools that you will be referring back to and supplementing many times over in the course of writing a novel. A word of caution is warranted here however, as changing the chronology of major events after you have drafted significant portions of your book can be tricky, as you will need to alter the text to be consistent with the new timeline and if you miss any major places, it can cause immersion-breaking continuity issues in your story.
First things first: Getting started on your master plotline and timeline
Let’s start by creating a rough draft of the master timeline of your novel. Timelines are versatile tools that can be used in a plethora of helpful ways, especially when overlaid with some of the various plotlines I will be discussing below. Regardless of whether you prefer to plan extensively or minimally, a timeline can help you to organize your major events, in order to keep your novel moving along the rails at a steady pace.
Examples of things that might go into a master timeline include: key battles over the course of a war, major moves in a political dispute, the change of religious influences in a region over time, etc. Digital or whiteboard timelines are also powerful tools for experimenting with changes, as you can play with various potential configurations by moving major events around in physical space. Having a visual timeline to ponder gives your world a concrete past, present, and future, and can help to establish the beginning, middle, and conclusion of your tale. It can also help you decide on what to include in a story, give you a map to follow, and make it easier to see the big picture while drafting the middle of a scene.
Your master timeline
Potential uses of a master timeline:
- To create a historical record of the events critical to the development of your world and its culture.
- To create a calendar of important days (rituals, holidays, celestial events) that are unique to your world.
- To track the effects of major political events across large regions (wars, change in leadership, treaties/alliances, etc.)
- To map out family linages over multiple generations.
Exercise: Creating a rough draft of your master timeline
To create an early draft of your master timeline, simply draw a line across a piece of paper. Next draw a circle somewhere on the left side to represent where the events of your story begin (regardless of how you plan to introduce your story to your reader). Next, draw a second circle on the far right side of the line to represent the conclusion of your story. In between these circles, add in any major plot events that you are considering in the relative order they will appear. Finally, fill in any key events that occurred before your story began over on the far left side of your timeline, and then the events that will play out after the conclusion of your novel on the right.
As you continue with the drafting process, you will want to go back and digitize or redraw your timeline on occasion, adding additional detail and clarification as you go. As with so many things in life, the more that you put into your timeline, the more you will get out of it. In my case, drawing my timeline on a series of whiteboards led to the inspiration of several key scenes all by itself, as well as helped me to decide on the length and structure of my various subplots and character arcs.
Your master plotline
While a master timeline helps to track the history of your world and the major events of your fictional universe, a master plotline helps to track the overall content and continuity of your scenes themselves, as well as their progression and pacing.
Uses of a master plotline:
- To view your scenes side by side in order, the same way a reader experiences them.
- To keep track of the tension arc within your story structure.
- To keep an eye on the subplots of your novel, ensuring that their length and order is proportionately balanced.
Exercise: A first draft of your master plotline
To create an early draft of your master plotline, first assemble a list of all the scenes you have come up with so far, regardless of whether you have drafted any text in them yet. Then label these scenes and place them side by side in chronological order. You might discover the inspiration for several new scenes during this brainstorming process simply by pondering your scenes and the gaps between them, so feel free to add them in as well whenever your muse strikes. When you have finished, next try grouping your scenes by organizing them into chapters. This structure will likely change a bit as you draft, but will still provide you with a rough idea of the length of each chapter and the pace of your novel. As you go, consider which of these scenes will possess rising action and attempt to intersperse them with scenes of falling action. Continue this draft until your main character achieves his or her goal, overcomes the novel’s central oppositional force, and completes their arc.
Regardless of where in your timeline you begin your story, you should generally tell it in chronological order from that point on (minor flashbacks aside). If you do decide to tell your story out of sequence for any reason, first make sure that it is vital to your story to do so, then attempt to remove as many barriers as possible that might prevent your reader from understanding what is going on. If you haven’t yet decided where to begin your novel, try plotting starting with the inciting incident (which will often be relatively clear in your mind already) and then work backwards to the opening scene.
Other plotline tools
In addition to the master plotline, there are numerous other line-based tools an author can use to assist them in drafting a novel. They are intended to be utilized alongside your master plot and timelines, helping you to keep track of specific aspects of your narrative. The following tools are technically both timelines (they can be spread out over the master timeline to track progression and continuity) as well as plotlines (they can be placed side by side to see their relative balance, order, length, pacing, etc.), but will be referred to here as plotlines for simplicity’s sake.
Individual character plotlines
These plotlines are unique to your central characters, following their growth as they progress through their various subplots and character arcs. Individual character plotlines are also great when attempting to keep track of split timelines and multiple PoV stories. They can also help you to keep an eye on your characters’ movements as they journey from place to place. As with the master timeline, it is helpful to fill in character plotlines starting from a period before the story begins, including their cornerstone experiences and other pivotal life events.
Reader information/experience plotlines
This type of plotline is used for staying organized regarding what information has been revealed to the reader so far, as well as what they have been led to expect and believe. This is useful in general when considering pacing and patterning, but really comes into its own when setting up plot twists, misdirection, cliffhangers, mysteries, and other surprises.
You should create a separate plotline for each of your major subplots, laying them out against the master timeline. This will help to ensure that each subplot is complete (contains a hook, central conflict, oppositional force, climax, and resolution) as well as when deciding how to chop the subplot up before interspersing it across your various chapters.
Split PoV plotlines
Every story that features multiple point of view characters (who are not in close physical proximity) will require a tool to help organize what is happening in several places at once. As the individual scenes each plot-branch contains can vary considerably in how quickly time is passing, you will need to keep track of each simultaneously-occurring scene in the overall scheme of your plot to avoid continuity issues when merging them back together. Your master timeline should contain a separate field for each PoV character in your novel, except for when they are located near another PoV character and the experiences of the group are already being reported to your reader.
When dealing with a narrative where the plotline splits into two or more pieces (such as when two main characters get separated and are on their own for a bit), track each plot on a separate line beneath the main story on the timeline. This way you can stay on top of where in the overall chronology each scene begins and ends.
Reasons to split a plotline
- A PoV character is separated from the main group and has a solo adventure until they make their way back.
- A new central character is introduced, who eventually meets up with the others.
- To show what is happening somewhere vital to the plot where no other central characters are.
In each of these cases, whenever a new point of view is used, you have a decision to make as an author. Namely, whether to keep using this PoV for the remainder of your novel, or to “retire” it once the PoV character joins/rejoins the protagonist, using the protagonist’s PoV to keep the reader updated on these characters going forwards.
Example of a split plotline
Let’s structure a simple split plotline:
Elsa and Davon are mercenaries. Professional bounty hunters tracking a group of bandits in the Blackwood along with six additional allies. Their first night in the woods, the group is attacked while making camp and Elsa and Davon are separated and forced to flee into the woods alone.
Davon: – – – >
Master plotline: —-< >—–
Elsa: – – >
Elsa has two unique scenes. The first is the resolution from the attack, where she is forced to deal with her injuries and the emotional aftermath, alone in the woods and under the threat of imminent danger. The second is a fight scene, in which Elsa is assaulted and overwhelmed, only to be saved at the last minute by the main band of mercenaries (merging her story back into the main plotline a bit before Davon’s big moment).
Davon gets three scenes. First one where he is also lost in the woods, attempting to track the bandits. In his second scene, Davon almost makes it back to the main group, but realizes that they are being stalked by their assailants and will be in mortal danger unless he manages to help. In Davon’s final solo scene, he initiates an attack on the bandits alone and from behind, placing himself in danger but ruining the ambush and alerting the other mercenaries to their peril. After a desperate battle, an injured Davon manages to rejoin the others, who have eliminated the bandits thanks to his help. This merges the split plotlines as well as resolves a major plot event. If we had allowed this split to continue on for a longer period, we might have added a scene following the main band of mercenaries as well.
Split and parallel timelines
Some stories feature two entirely distinct, progressive, and parallel timelines, such as telling the story of a character as both a child and as an adult (each of which progresses over time). This is a complex narrative technique that I recommend avoiding until you have a few novels under your belt, as it is difficult to balance and can easily become a source of immersion-breaking confusion for your reader.
Parallel timelines: Two distinct points in time —A and —B, are blended together across the narrative
A: – – – – – –
B: – – – – – –
The events themselves will never converge over the course of the story (although their implications and consequences certainly should). One common form of parallel timeline is the two (or more) part flashback, in which a character is telling a story or reliving a memory that is interrupted by present events and concluded later on.
Final thoughts on structuring your plot
- It is incredible helpful to use timelines and plotlines in order portion your overall plot into digestible bits of narrative.
- You will usually want to decide on the purpose of each scene before you begin to draft it, as well as determine the events that come before and after.
- Although you will want to choose what information to include carefully, the more work you put into your timelines and plotlines, the more clarity you will possess when drafting your scenes.
That’s all for this entry on planning out your plot. I hope you found this exercise helpful. Now, head on over and join me in the next section and we can get started on drafting your novel in earnest.