Hello again and thanks for joining me for another thrilling episode in our novel-crafting adventure. At long last, we have journeyed through the heart of the drafting process and arrived at the culminating exercise for this section: drafting the first scene of your novel. Although you have likely already hammered out a decent pile of text by this point, we are going to shift the focus all the way back to page one and take a close look at the first scene of your novel, building it all the way into a complete draft.
Over the course of this installment, we have explored a number of tools and techniques for scenecrafting, so make sure that you have taken a look at the previous entry on scenecrafting 101 before getting started here. It will also be helpful if you have already read my prior entry on planning out your plot, so you can be sure that you are beginning your novel in the best place for the story you are trying to tell.
For today’s exercise, we will be developing and polishing your opening scene, helping to ensure that the reader’s first impression of your novel will be a good one, including techniques for inserting a tempting hook that will help to seal the deal and ensure they take the plunge and read your book from cover to cover. We will also discuss taking a step back and writing from the reader’s perspective. This is especially important at the beginning of your novel, as your reader knows absolutely nothing yet regarding your world, characters, and plot. We will then discuss the pros and cons of opening with a prologue, including some tricks and tips for constructing one. Finally, we will end with a series of exercises intended to get the ball rolling as you dive into a complete draft, as well as a few to help flesh and round things out.
So roll up your sleeves and get ready for an exciting session, for today your novel writing voyage enters exciting new territory!
The power of a first impression
Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes
Before we launch into some theory and technique regarding how to draft the beginning of a novel, I want to help you to recover a bit of distance by reminding yourself just how much of an expert you have become regarding your novel. Over the course of many long hours, you have pondered and labored over your characters, granting them unique personalities, drives, and backstories. You have meditated on the world you have created, fleshing out a fine collection of colorful settings. You have unpacked your novel’s theme and central conflict and lovingly sculpted your plot structure, packing in wonderful nuance and detail. In short, you have become an expert on your own book, an important step in growing as an author.
Despite all you have gained throughout this process, there is one thing you have lost. Namely, you no longer have the ability to easily and accurately perceive how your story appears to a new reader, who knows absolutely nothing about your world, plot, and characters. In essence, you have lost your beginner’s mind, and with its passage, you are now in danger of unconsciously assuming that your readers have access to the same information you do. This puts you at risk, especially when writing the first scene of your novel, in assuming the events and action that are crystal clear to you will be equally easy for your reader to follow.
So what do we do about this dilemma?
To begin, I want to you take a deep breath and remember what it is like to pick up new book for the first time. In fact, I advise that you crack open a novel or two you haven’t read before and browse the opening chapter, just to remind yourself what it feels like to be coming at a new story with fresh eyes. This is important because when writing a scene from your expert’s perspective, it is astonishingly easy to assume the events and characters you have laid out are way clearer than they really are.
The takeaway here is that when you begin to draft your first scene, you want it to be as simple and clear, as easy to follow as possible. Your reader needs to know (and only know) what is happening, who it is happening to, and why they should care/what they should feel. Get this right and you should have a relatively easy time drafting of your first scene. Get it wrong and your reader will have trouble connecting to your story and forming that oh so critical positive first impression.
Components of a powerful first impression
Grabbing the reader’s attention
Creating a solid first impression starts with obtaining your reader’s attention. Before they can begin to appreciate your characters, settings, and hook, you will need to pull them into the flow of your narrative. Or, put another way, the first half of hooking your audience is getting them to pay full attention to your story, followed by cementing their interest with the main hook that will arrive a bit later in your opening. Some ways to grab your reader’s interest might include:
- An engaging slice of action.
- A provocative statement or hint of foreshadowing.
- A problem that needs to be solved.
Let the reader know what kind of story this will be from the start
Right from the first paragraph of your novel, you should let your reader know what kind of story they are signing up for. This means showing them your protagonist and world in the opening scene (more about that below) but also giving them a fair introduction to the style, voice, and tone of your writing. This means that if your opening scene is gritty and grim, you create an expectation that this is the flavor that much of the rest of the novel will carry as well. Conversely, if your opening is light or humorous, they will expect the rest of the story to be fairly upbeat. The opening scene of your novel should reflect the core theme and overall atmosphere of the book to at least some extent as well.
In order to create a first impression of your novel that is true to the rest of your story, you are going to need to pay close attention to the words you choose and to the atmosphere or feelings they convey. Think of this as a micro introduction to your story as a whole. Thus, whatever manner of story you are trying to tell, choose words and events that match it right from the start.
Introducing your protagonist and giving them a problem to solve
Once you have managed to grab the reader’s attention and set the initial atmosphere, helping them to form the beginnings of a first impression about your writing and story, it’s time to toss in another key ingredient to their evaluation of your novel, introducing your main character. Introducing your protagonist is a key moment in your story, so make sure to make it memorable. How you first describe your protagonist, along with what goal he or she is attempting to achieve at the start, will go a long way in cementing the reader’s first impression. This means that you should try to make sure that you create an accurate and engaging image of this character, one that will stick with the reader as they head into the body of your novel. The early descriptions you provide, and even more importantly, what the protagonist thinks, says, and does, will help the reader to understand what kind of story lies beneath their fingertips.
Help the reader to like and empathize with the protagonist right from the start
If your audience can’t form a meaningful connection to your protagonist from the moment they meet them, they won’t buy in and decide to keep reading, no matter how well-crafted your prose and other elements of your introduction. The best way to help create such a connection is to allow the reader to emphasize with the protagonist, vicariously sharing in their emotions from page one. The most effective way to achieve such a connection is to provide your characters with clear and relatable goals, as well as by making it obvious what the character feels and desires as well as their reasons for doing so. The wants and needs of your characters, their goals along with the obstacles that stand in their way, are a critical force that drives your story forwards. Such vibrant sources of tension and energy should be shown to the reader right from the start, as superficial goals and motivations will prevent them from caring about your characters and their inner worlds.
Introducing your first setting
Alongside your protagonist, how you go about introducing your first setting will also play a part in creating a favorable first impression. This environment is a key piece of the reader’s initial glimpse into the wide world of your novel, so make sure to pick a location that is iconic to the events that will follow as well as one that reinforces the overall theme and atmosphere of your story as a whole.
Planting your initial hook
With that bit of introduction out of the way, it’s time to move on to the single most important component of creating a good first impression, planting the initial hook of your story. This a critical piece of narrative, designed to transform an interested reader into a committed one. Hooks can take many forms, but they all share a single defining feature, they make the reader want to know more. A well-crafted hook will lead to the reader wanting (or better yet needing) to know what happens next as well as what will happen to your characters later on down the road.
First challenge and/or first setback for protagonist
Perhaps the most common form of hook, as well as another important part in generating a positive first impression, is introducing the first challenge and setback your protagonist will face. This might not happen at the end of the first scene, but should certainly transpire by the end of the first chapter. This moment is important because it contains the first time your protagonist encounters failure. How they respond to this undesired occurrence, alongside how it changes them, will reveal a great deal about your novel to your reader. Make this setback important to your character, changing them in some way. Make the moment memorable and your hook will sink, reeling your reader in all the way to the last page of your novel.
To prologue or not to prologue
Although they do seem to be a bit less common than in decades past, many works of fiction include some manner of prologue. Some prologues work well, serving as powerful springboards that help to launch the audience into the midst of a thrilling narrative. Others are rather… less effective, rambling on for several pages with information that is difficult for the audience to absorb and glued to overall story like a vestigial appendage. As a writer, the choice is yours. You will have to do a bit of pondering and then decide whether or not a prologue is a good fit for your story.
What is a prologue?
At its heart, a prologue is simply a bit of text that is included before the first chapter of a novel begins. A solid prologue provides the reader with important information that frames or catalyzes the plot.
Prologues often involve a character or event far removed from the lives of your central characters and the events of the chapter to follow, giving the reader a glimpse of things to come well before the inciting incident and conveying information none of the main characters possess.
Does your story really need a prologue?
As we just finished discussing, creating a positive first impression is mandatory if you want people to read and enjoy your novel. One easy way to prevent this from happening is by starting off with an unnecessary or clunky prologue. In essence, you should only include a prologue in your novel if it provides information that is important to your reader’s understanding and that could not be included in the first chapter.
A vital prologue is one that contributes directly to the plot by unveiling significant, relevant information or events. Details without which there would be something critical missing from your reader’s understanding. Put another way, the reason for including a prologue needs to be more compelling than merely setting the stage or establishing atmosphere. Perhaps these events took place in the distant past, or in a place far removed from location of the main characters. Perhaps a bit of context and history is so important, the reader can’t really understand the events to follow without it. A good rule of thumb is that if the story could work just as well by starting at chapter one, without becoming weaker or more confusing, the prologue was most likely not needed to begin with.
The truth of the matter is that most stories simply will not need a prologue. And as such, many authors will advise you to avoid them altogether. But that doesn’t mean that you as a writer shouldn’t have a solid understand of how prologues work and how to write one. Who knows, maybe your story will be better served by including one. Personally I found that having the option at my disposal gave me a bit more flexibility when pondering how to start my story and for my first book I did decide to include a short prologue like section, as it reveals a ticking clock that none of the main characters are aware of (until it is much too late).
If you are considering a prologue, first ask yourself first if the details or action it contains are relevant to your core plot. Then ask if this information really needs to be provided to the reader before they dive into the first chapter. If both questions come back “yes” then go ahead and give a prologue a chance. If you are worried that seeing the word prologue might be a turn off to your audience, simply remove it and leave the opening section untitled.
If you do decide to use a prologue:
- The prologue should be a key piece of the novel, consistent with the voice and theme of the rest of the book.
- The prologue should be a complete story, except that it should end with something important left unresolved.
- The prologue needs its own hook, separate from the one you place in the first chapter.
- The prologue should involve a time, location, or character far removed from the events of the chapter to follow.
Bury your reader under a pile of information
Some of the worst prologues are formed from pages and pages of background information. Such prologues are first impression disasters waiting to happen. This is because a reader has not yet had time to connect to a novel’s world and characters. To become curious about them and begin to care. Thus, all of this extraneous information is effectively meaningless. Worse, thick blocks of facts are tough to chew and swallow, preventing immersion and shattering the fourth wall from page one.
There is simply no way a reader can form a great first impression while skimming past mountains of raw exposition, and your chance to hook them will have already been blown before they make it to chapter one. Most of these kinds of prologues can be cut out altogether, the information spread out across the first few chapters and introduced as it becomes relevant.
If you do want to include a bit of world building in your prologue, remember to keep it short and sweet and only include information your audience really needs to know before the main story begins.
This may seem a bit obvious, but a prologue should only be included if it as least as interesting as the chapter to follow. One easy way to make your reader’s eyes glaze over is to include a prologue where there is no tension. Where the characters do not possess clear goals or problems. The reader needs to know why they should care about what they are being told, as well as why they should feel something in response. Furthermore, the events of a prologue need to be important and not exist in isolation. They need to be compelling and tied directly to the main plot of the novel.
Another way of writing a boring prologue is by making it too long. Forcing the reader to turn page after page before they get introduced to your protagonist and opening setting.
Six types of prologue
To help you wrap your head around the many approaches to crafting prologues that are out there, I will now outline six types of prologue commonly used in fiction. As with so many aspects of writing, there are an incredible variety of potential approaches to constructing a prologue and with time and practice you will certainly develop your own variants as well.
A vision from the future
This type of prologue involves the protagonist or another character in a period of time set after the main events of the novel have occurred, written in the same point of view and tense as the rest of the novel. This purpose of this prologue is to show the state of affairs at the end of the story, while the novel explains and follows how these events came to be. Although this approach my reveal aspects of the story’s conclusion, it should avoid showing too many of the key events that take place in the climax and resolution. Instead, think of it as a form of heavy foreshadowing. An example of a vision from the future might include the protagonist standing in the ruins of the city they lived in, letting the reader know that some manner of catastrophe is in the works.
… or from the distant past
This version of prologue shows a critical event in real time that occurred in far in the past of the timeline of the novel. It is used when this moment is vital to understanding the story’s protagonist or central conflict, rather than packaging these events into a flashback or summary. An example of a view from the past might include the moment that a superhero first gained/became aware of their special powers, setting the stage for the character they have become by the beginning of the book.
An outside point of view
This type of prologue involves using a point of view character that is not one of the PoVs used throughout the rest of the novel. It can occur before, after, or during the main events of the plot. It allows you to show your reader a vital piece of story that none of the other characters have witnessed or heard about. This can help you to set up a variety of plot twists and foreshadowing techniques, which may not come to fruition until much later. Sometimes the antagonist’s viewpoint is used for this scene (helpful when the protagonist will not encounter them until much later on), while in other cases a victim of the central conflict is utilized instead. An example of an outside point of view might be the antagonist setting their plan into motion, details the protagonist will not uncover until the middle of the book.
Starting the clock
This is a variation of the outside point of view prologue, one that reveals a key, time-sensitive aspect of the central conflict to the reader well before the main characters will become aware of them. This a great way to foreshadow events to follow, and one that creates tension and suspense right from the start. The reader knows that the characters and events are inevitably going to entangle with this threat, helping to draw them in and become curious how the problem will resolve. An example of starting the clock might include the antagonist putting a bomb on a plane, the countdown starting and then ticking away as the early chapters of the book unfold.
Sometimes a novel is set in a world where the rules, culture, and settings are so unique or unusual, that it might not be possible for a reader to fully understand them without a brief introduction. A world building prologue is usually packaged in the form of a short story that reveals critical details that help render the first chapter relatable. Be careful when using a world building prologue not to overload the reader with too much, non-relevant information, and to include a hook that will grab their attention. World building prologues are fairly common and easy to imagine, but a solid one will only include relevant information that contextualizes the first character and is presented in a form that is easy to understand and internalize.
The narrator introduces his/her story
This type of prologue is commonly used in first person POV stories. It involves the protagonist either telling a story out loud to others or sitting and writing an autobiographical account (the rest of the novel). This helps to introduce the protagonist as well as their overall impression of the adventure they underwent, although the conclusion of the story is often only implied rather than explained in detail. An example of a narrator introducing his or her story might include the protagonist on their deathbed, telling the story of their youth to a younger generation, or by dictating these experiences into a memoir.
Beyond prologues, drafting the opening scene of your novel
Deciding where to draw the starting line
Now that you have some ideas for the kinds of prologue that are out there, it’s time to move on to drafting the first chapter and opening scene of your story. In this section, you will be asking yourself a number of questions including:
- Where in my story’s timeline will I begin my narrative?
- What is the major event of my opening scene?
- Will I include any characters other than my protagonist?
- If so, who (Keep your starting cast slim and memorable during the first part of your book)?
- Where will my first scene take place?
- How will I grab my reader’s attention and then hook them into my story?
Drafting the Opening Scene of your Novel
You have a number of important decisions to make before you are ready to start drafting, the first of which is where in the timeline of your story you want to begin your opening scene. We covered this topic already in my earlier entry on planning out your plot, but here is a summary of possible places to begin to help with your brainstorming now.
Places to open a story
At the Beginning
One common place to begin a story is… at the beginning. When the characters are still immersed in their ordinary world and daily existence. This type of opening is generally used when you want to take some time to set the stage before the inciting incident, contrasting this bit of normalcy with the exciting events to follow.
Even with the slowly rising tension that this plot structure encourages, you will still want to lead with a hook to engage your readers and help connect them to your world and characters. One way to accomplish this is to foreshadow that this is the day to day existence of your characters, a state of affairs destined to come to an abrupt end before too long. Another is to introduce the wants and needs of your characters immediately in a subplot, following this bit of story until the main events of your plot sweep your characters up into the thick of things with the inciting incident.
Start in a “present” that the story catches up to before the end
The next two starting points occur at key moments in the plotline, and then work the story backwards to explain how things came to be. One option is to have your novel open in a “present” that exists somewhere in the middle of the overall plotline, where the protagonist is narrating the backstory and explaining how these events came to be. At some point later on, the action will catch up with the story’s present, taking the reader along with the characters into unknown territory. With this technique, it is easy to foreshadow the meat of the plot up to this point. After all, the main characters have already lived through these events and know what happened, while the ending is left a total mystery until you unveil the final scenes.
This type of opening shares a few similarities with a vision from the future prologue in that you should not give away too much regarding the overall plot. Just enough to make the conflict and characters seem interesting, ensuring that the reader will want to know how things got to this state, and how they will resolve after. One variation of this opening is to start in the aftermath of the inciting incident.
Right before the final climax
Another variation of opening a story in the middle of the plot occurs when the opening scene is set right before the main climax of the story. This lets the reader know immediately what the central conflict is and makes the rest of the story effectively a prolonged flashback until events catch up with the “present”, revealing to the reader how affairs have reached their current state. You can even place this start in the dark night of the soul, when the characters have reached a low point where things seem hopeless.
Exercise: Deciding where in your story’s timeline to place the opening act
It’s now time to decide if you want to begin your story at the beginning, or at some later point in the overall plotline.
- Start by looking over your timelines and plotlines as well as any other information or text you have so far regarding this scene, character, and setting.
- Then move on and ponder your goals for this section (what about your character or world are you trying to show your reader?).
- Think about how this intro will lead up to the inciting incident (foreshadowing works well here).
- Consider letting the reader know the most important thing about your character/story in the first paragraph.
- Remember to open with a hook.
Try outlining the scene in complete sentences and mapping the setting if you get stuck at any point. If you encounter writer’s block, pause for a few breaths to visualize your scene, picturing what it would be like to be standing there. Try to engage all five (ok maybe 3-4) senses, and keep in mind the feelings (mood) you want to conjure for your reader.
Culminating exercise: A first draft of your opening scene
Drafting the opening
Now that you have an idea for how and where you want to begin your story, it’s time to begin drafting your first page, paragraph, and opening line.
If you are still mulling things over, go back and take a last look at my entry on [scenecrafting] and the discussion on various types of openings (action, character, narrative) to decide which you want to use for the opening scene of your novel. Remember, your job is to (in order): 1) Catch the reader’s attention, 2) Make a positive first impression, and then, 3) Hook them all the way into your story.
The start of a novel contains the first several chapters, and ends when the inciting incident launches things into the middle of the story. However, there is no way a potential reader, publisher, or agent will make it anywhere close to that far unless everything up to that point is well-constructed. They will never make it to the second chapter if the first doesn’t engage them. They won’t make it to the second page if the first doesn’t grab their attention and begin to hook them. They will never arrive at the end of the first page if your leading paragraph and opening line don’t excite them.
The first page
So then, what is your objective for page one of your book? Well, at the most basic level, your job is to do everything within your power to make sure the reader forms a good first impression and then keeps on reading. In order to ensure they continue reading, they are going to need to become curious about your characters and the things that are happening to them.
This comes down on the engagement power of your main character, as well as the initial action and conflict they are drawn into. Your protagonist needs to be interesting, likeable, and relatable. Any other interesting contradictions, traits, or behaviors will help with this process as well.
Moving beyond your characters, the opening of your story needs to create questions, questions the reader is willing to keep turning those pages to discover the answer to. This needs to be introduced via some manner of engaging action or character interaction, setting the stage for the inciting incident to follow. While many opening scenes show a character still in their everyday life and environment, they should tease with a promise that there is more to come. Resist the urge to dive into the protagonist’s inner world and backstory just yet, as your reader has not had time to form a bond to that person and become sufficiently curious about such matters.
The first sentence
In many ways, the opening line of your novel is the most important sentence you will ever write. If it doesn’t engage the reader’s curiosity, the rest of the pages that follow might as well remain blank. So then, what makes for a powerful and memorable opening sentence?
Well, of course there is no single answer to this question (try checking out the opening lines of your favorite books for ideas, as well as to appreciate just how many options you have at your disposal). In essence though, the opening line needs to grab the reader’s attention, making them curious to read a bit more and see just what this story is all about.
In general it’s best to:
- Launch into some manner of action or interaction, rather than describing the setting or contextualizing events via exposition or summary.
- Start with the protagonist rather than a minor character.
- Begin with prose rather than dialogue.
- Make the line unusual or unexpected, so that is raises questions in the reader’s mind.
In essence, you want your opening lines to flirt with the reader’s imagination, making them curious while also helping them to form an emotional connection to your character and events, usually by allowing them to emphasize with relatable goals. At the same time it’s good to entertain and surprise, while setting the mood for the scene to follow.
Closing your opening scene
I recommend you make your first scene relatively compete in and of itself. It can and should raise provocative questions, but it’s nice if the opening action itself is self-contained, like a sneak peak of the entire story.
The end of your first scene should also offer a promise of exciting things to come, implying that the reader has only seen the tip of the iceberg of what your story has to offer.
With that out of the way, all that’s left if to try writing a draft of your scene. If you get stuck, try:
- Outlining the rest of the events in complete sentences.
- Looking at the next chapter and inciting incident and thinking about how the end of this scene will lead towards them.
Congratulations, you have now made it all the way through the drafting section of this guide. All that’s left is to put your nose to the grindstone and complete a draft of your first scene… then keep right on going until you have complete a rough draft of your novel. Of course, along the way you will begin to revise your existing text, so come on over and join me for the final chapter of this installment, the revising process.
Hello my fellow writers and welcome to the next exciting entry in my drafting process series. Over the course of today’s discussion, we are going to take a look at one of my favorite aspects of writing a novel: scenecrafting.
Scenecrafting lies at the heart of constructing works of fiction. It is a core writing component as well as a complex art. The various tools and techniques that go into developing and drafting a scene possess myriad layers and facets, representing a nearly infinite variety of potential approaches. Your ability to structure and embellish scenes is a skill you will be growing throughout the entirety of your writing career, developing your own process and style as time goes on.
In the next major installment of this blog, “the Anatomy of an Engaging Scene,” I will be getting granular with scenecrafting, diving into tension, atmosphere, and pacing, as well as some of the more abstract aspects of narrative construction (violating and fulfilling reader expectations, foreshadowing, continuity, etc.), inducing advice on how to choreograph intricate action sequences.
But to help you get oriented during the early stages of drafting your novel, I first want to share what I have learned regarding how to create scenes at a foundational level, providing you with an approach that will help you to reliably engage your audience and drive your plot forwards. We will begin by taking a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, then take a deeper dive within each piece, including examples and exercises intended to help you determine and draft the opening, action, and closing of your scenes.
Rather than attempting to be comprehensive in this post, I will instead offer an overview of scenecrafting in general, including some tools that should help you to wrap your head around the process so you can begin drafting significant portions of your text. By the time you arrive at the end of this section, you should have a plan in place for how you will go about drafting scenes in your novel as well as some techniques to help keep the ball rolling.
Three types of scenes
For today’s discussion, I am going to divide the wide world of scenes into three broad categories. In this analytical framework, the way I use the word scene is interchangeable with a chapter or subchapter.
Complete scenes: are scenes that are whole in and of themselves. In complete scenes, the action leading up to the major event is usually introduced during the opening and generally culminates at or before the closing, offering a clear resolution to the events contained within without a lingering question or cliffhanger.
Cliffhanger scenes: are scenes that do not fully resolve the major event when the chapter (or subchapter) comes to an end. Instead, the action cuts away at a critical moment at or before the big climax, leaving the reader in suspense until the paired continuation scene occurs sometime later in the novel.
Continuation scenes: are scenes that carry over from another prior scene. One with a critical piece of action or plot point left unresolved, often via some manner of cliffhanger. Continuation scenes tend to position their major event closer to the opening and often close with falling tension, as the events of the paired scene play out and affect the plot and characters.
Crafting scenes in five stages
To begin with, let’s take a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, no matter their length or content.
Every scene has:
- A goal/purpose: The primary reason you are including the scene in your novel.
- A dominant emotional overtone (atmosphere/mood): The feelings your audience experiences while reading the scene, often shifting as events progress.
- An opening: The initial sentences in which you introduce and contextualize the scene, establishing its direction and pace. Every scene should open with some manner of hook, drawing the reader in and immersing them within the action.
- At least one major event (and usually several minor events): A key event that serves to drive the plot (or subplot) forwards, establishes or reveals character, or moves a character along in their arc.
- A closing: Your chosen ending to the scene, cementing (via another hook) the reader’s desire to know more as well as setting the stage for the scenes that follow.
Stage 1: It all begins with a clear purpose
Each of your scenes, before you even begin to decide which characters they will include or what major events they will cover, should possess a clear purpose for being, the reason why you are including it in your novel to begin with (as well as why the reader should care). A scene should never be added as filler, or for any other reason than to establish (or transform) character or to advance the plot (main or sub).
Thus, the purpose of your scenes needs to contain a deeper significance than merely conveying superficial action or character interaction. They should be a link in the chain of causality initiated by the events in prior scenes and that significantly affect the events that follow. Put another way, each of your major scenes should form a natural procession, extending out from the scene(s) before it while paving the road for the scenes that follow, connecting and anchoring the narrative contained within to your plot as a whole.
But that doesn’t mean a given scene can’t serve other purposes as well. For, in addition to advancing your plot, a scene might help to:
- Introduce a new character or subplot.
- Build or relieve tension.
- Establish or reinforce a setting.
- Introduce or resolve conflict.
- Alter the pacing or atmosphere of the narrative as a whole.
Exercise: Identifying the purpose of your scenes
When contemplating drafting a new scene, you might only know what the major event is and still need to decide how it advances the overall plot. Or you might know what needs to happen in general to move the plot along, but still be vague on the details of how the scene will do so. Coming from another angle, you will need to know what is going to happen (the major event), as well as why it is vital to your plot, before you can build an outline of your scene and fashion a complete first draft.
Now, it’s perfectly fine (and totally normal) if one of these pieces remains a bit vague during the initial stages of constructing a scene. However, the more focus you can obtain regarding the what and why of your scenes early on, the easier it will be to progress through the five stages of scenecrafting.
Thus, it is often helpful to start with a brainstorming session. Begin by writing down everything you have come up with so far regarding the what and why of the scene (as well as the who and where). When you have finished, try asking yourself some of the questions below intended to help fill in the gaps and flesh out the significance of the scene within your mind. A well-purposed scene will feel both vital and exciting as it begins to take on its full form and meaning, inspiring your curiosity to add more detail and discover exactly what will happen next (a feeling your reader will pick up on as well, encouraging them to immerse themselves fully within your narrative).
When pondering the creation or development of a scene, try asking yourself:
- What is happening with my plot and characters?
- What was the state of affairs at the end of the last scene, and where do things stand now?
- What are the present wants and needs of my central characters? Where are they in their arcs?
- What are the most pressing obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals?
- What is the emotion or understanding I want my reader to walk away with from this scene?
- What is the major conflict in this scene and do I plan on resolving it now or later on?
- What is the best context (location and surrounding events) to convey my action?
- Will I use one of my preexisting settings? Or will I need to develop a new one?
- Will I be raising or lowering the level of tension in the narrative with this scene?
- How can I make these events easy to follow for my audience?
- Who will be the PoV character for this scene?
As you continue to ponder these questions, you will begin to decide who (character), where (setting), and what (plot) is going on in your scene and then start drafting complete sentences and paragraphs. You can also go back to these questions a time or two after laying down some track, in order to decide what else to add or how to bridge the gaps between events. You will likely begin to supplement and revise this list of questions as you gain additional experience in scenecrafting, customizing this tool to get the most out of it for your unique writing process.
Once you have some concrete ideas regarding the what and why of your scene (or if you have simply run out of gas on brainstorming for now), it’s time to move forwards and decide on the dominant emotional overtone for your scene (also known as the atmosphere or mood), the feeling you will be paring with the meaning of your events.
Every scene in your novel should be designed to make your reader feel something (or more often a seamless progression of several mindsets and/or emotions). For these kinds of visceral experiences are a key part of why people enjoy reading fictional stories to begin with. The atmosphere evoked by your words should be intimately tied to the purpose of the scene and will vary considerably between scenes of rising and falling tension.
An atmosphere is established by the descriptive language you choose. The nouns and verbs that draw clear lines around your settings, characters, and events, as well as by the modifiers you use to regulate them. The pattern (pacing) of your words, sentences, and paragraphs will go a long way in creating the atmosphere of your choosing as well.
Additionally, the dialogue and dynamics between the characters in your scenes create and reinforce the atmosphere through the words they speak and the manner in which they react to one another. This means that the present emotional state of your characters (especially the PoV character) should be consistent with the tone you are trying to set, as this is a powerful way to let the reader know how to feel without having to tell them outright. This emotional overtone is further reinforced by which details a character notices and reacts to in their environment.
Common tones include:
- Action and adventure
- Suspense and mystery
- Slice of life
- Horror and fear
- Joy and beauty
- Solemn and spiritual
A few core principals of mood:
- You should be able to define the mood of a scene in a single sentence.
- The dominant atmosphere of a scene should support the meaning of the major event it contains. This can be done either by reinforcing the present feelings of the main characters (heavy rain on a sad day), or by deliberately creating contrast (a happy group is blithely walking into danger).
- It is common (and probably a good idea) for the tone of a scene to shift after the beginning or near the end. This allows for the dominant overtone to feel more significant, as feelings evoked by words are often more powerful when we can observe a change taking place (especially when this shift is mirrored by the emotional state of the PoV character).
- In general, the atmosphere of your scenes should vary, along with many other aspects of your prose. This helps to keeps things fresh for the reader, preventing the onset of boredom caused by predictability.
Some helpful tools to help establish mood include:
Setting (core and transient properties)
This is the first major choice to ponder when crafting the mood of a scene. Begin by asking yourself which of your settings will best reinforce the atmosphere you are attempting to create. Will one of your existing settings work well, or does your gut tell you that only a new environment will do? In addition to the core dynamics of the setting (the unchanging physical characteristics of that place), what transient properties of setting will best convey your chosen mood? These can include the time of day and weather events, as well the presence of other people, animals, or objects. The atmosphere conjured by your setting is further reinforced by the conflict or challenges the environment creates for your characters (or frees them from).
Choice of words (style and emphasis)
Perhaps the most powerful tools you possess to establish and enhance mood are the specific words you choose to set the stage and frame the action. The descriptive nouns you select, along with adjectives and other modifiers, should come together to form a consistent image for your reader. This effect is further enhanced by what objects and actions you decide to elevate and which you ignore. For example, a character watching the sunrise over a garbage dumb will generate a rather different mood depending on whether you choose to highlight the beauty despite the mess, or focus on the rotting filth instead.
Pacing and patterns
Along with their content, the structure and rhythm of your paragraphs and sentences will also influence the mood of your scenes. A series of short sentences can help to raise tension as the action intensifies, while longer blocks of text can help to calm things down. Beyond their overall pattern, how the rhythm of words changes across a scene can help to convey atmosphere and meaning as well. For example, speeding things up as characters near a major event, or slowing them down to allow time to reorient and reflect. The imagery you evoke via prose, often through the use of metaphor and simile, will also help to lock in and enrich the mood you have chosen.
Dialogue and internal monologue
Another way to establish mood is through the dialogue and inner monologue of your characters. This is because the words a character speaks or thinks are windows into their present emotional state, and vicariously absorbing the emotions of your characters is one of the most effective ways to generate similar feelings within your reader.
Exercise: Pondering the tone of your scene
This is another simple brainstorming exercise intended to help you clarify the mood of your scenes. Start by briefly reviewing any outlines or early text you have so far, then ask yourself:
- What do I want the reader to feel at the start of the scene, during the major event, and at the conclusion?
- Which elements have I included to bolster or diminish the current level of tension in my narrative?
- How does my setting reinforce the mood I have chosen? What is the best time of day and weather to enhance this choice?
- Which characters best convey the emotional overtone I am attempting to instill? Who else might I include to contrast or amplify this feeling?
- Does my descriptive language help to capture and sustain my chosen atmosphere?
- Does my dialogue and inner monologue help show the reader how to feel?
When you have finished, see if you can write down the mood you wish to convey in a single sentence, then leave it out somewhere where you can glance at it during the drafting process. This can help you to naturally select words and events that will reinforce your chosen atmosphere without having to expend any additional effort.
3) The curtain rises: Deciding how to open your scene
As I mentioned in the introduction to this section, some scenes are the continuation of an existing conflict, while others herald the beginning of a new challenge or struggle. Which type of scene you are working with (continuation, complete, or cliffhanger) goes a long way all by itself in determining the nature of the events contained within the opening of your scene.
Continuation scenes tend to place their major event right at the opening, as the paired cliffhanger is resolved and sets further events into motion. While in complete and cliffhanger scenes, the opening usually focuses more on contextualizing and setting up events to come, often taking the form of a minor event that eventually transitions into a major event sometime before the end of the scene.
Additionally, some scenes involve rising action, raising the level of tension as a major event or conflict approaches. While other scenes are set to falling action, in which conflict usually takes a backseat to character development and interaction.
Regardless of the above considerations, every opening should contain some manner of hook, an interesting piece of story that is designed to grab the reader’s attention and pull them into the flow of your narrative.
Things a solid opening can achieve:
- Establish the atmosphere, direction, and momentum of a scene.
- Hook the reader, galvanizing their desire to follow the chapter or subchapter to completion.
- Contextualize current events.
- Foreshadow a dramatic change in plot, tension, or pace.
In some ways, every opening is unique, for there are effectively an infinite number of ways you might begin a given scene. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to break down the various types of openings into three broad categories: action openings, narrative openings, and character openings.
One powerful way to open a scene is to thrust the reader into the middle of the action right from the start. Rather than attempting to explain and contextualize things via narration, summary, or exposition, you begin with events already in motion, generating a powerful momentum that will cement your reader’s interest all the way to the conclusion of the scene. This is fairly simple to achieve when the scene is the continuation of a conflict carried over from a prior section. But even when introducing a new conflict, action openings can be an effective way to instantly hook your audience by immersing them within exciting physical sensations.
To create effective action openings, the reader needs to have at least some sense of what is happening and why they should care. This means it should be clear right from the start who is involved in the scene and what emotions the characters are experiencing. But this doesn’t mean that you need to pause and explain things to your reader, as this will get in the way of the energy you have built by starting with action. Rather, weave short bits of critical detail into what the characters notice and react to, as well as into the physical motions of the scene itself.
For example, if your characters are detectives investigating a murder, you could begin a scene as they dive for cover as mysterious figures open fire from a nearby alleyway. As they fight for their lives, you would continue laying out the details and context of the ambush in small pieces as your protagonists desperately throw themselves behind nearby cars and buildings, the sound of gunfire and flying debris framing small bits of exposition.
In general, you shouldn’t open with intense action unless the results will lead to important consequences later on in the scene or chapter, and when you do begin with action, go heavy on the sensory details. Attempt to rein yourself in and prevent yourself from over-utilizing action openings, as you will hit diminishing returns with their engagement power, especially if you are too heavy-handed. Scenes with action openings will frequently close with less intense pieces of reaction, as the characters begin to absorb and respond to the events and their immediate aftermath. Finally, unless a scene is particularly short and its conflict will continue on into a later scene, don’t try and keep the action going nonstop from start to finish.
Remember, the key to crafting a successful action opening is to make the events contained within as engaging and easy to follow as possible, without excessive explaining.
One variation of action openings are those that still center on some manner of conflict, but contain less physicalized action. Conflict openings follow the same principles of action openings in that you should launch into the events without much explanation or preamble. In a conflict opening, the events center on two or more characters with competing goals, or between a character and themselves (often taking the form of a dilemma). There should still be a good deal of sensory detail in a conflict opening, but these will focus more on posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression, as well as the physical and psychological reactions that come from experiencing powerful emotions (sweating palms, a rush of adrenaline, flushed with embarrassment, etc.)
Mystery and suspense openings
Another kind of action opening focuses on suspense rather than physical or interpersonal conflict. These type of openings present some manner of unknown that the reader will want to know the answer to. This can take the form of a mystery introduced by a minor event (one character is desperately attempting to find another, but we don’t know why), or of an approaching conflict that is steadily drawing near. The action in this case involves the characters coming closer and closer to danger, or some other significant risk or revelation. This type of tension can be further tightened when the reader and characters possess different understandings of what is happening (the characters are walking into a trap that the audience knows about but they are blind to) and usually works best when the situation has already been explained to the reader in earlier scenes. So, as with other action openings, a solid suspense scene generally opens with events already in motion, rather than leading with exposition or summary.
Sometimes action is the best way to open a scene, drawing the reader into the midst of events immediately and without preamble. However, other times it can be useful to begin a complex scene by providing some context first, allowing the reader to fully understand the implications of the events that will follow. Narrative openings are often employed when introducing a character or setting for the first time as well as near the beginning of a book, when the world and its relevant history are still largely unknown to the reader.
Sticking with our murder mystery from the example above, perhaps one of the early chapters opens with a few paragraphs about the city and year the story takes place, before moving on to the location where the first victim is discovered. In this case, such an opening could provide the audience with a block of critical background that informs them of the local culture in a way that sets the stage for everything that follows.
In general, you will want to keep any form of narrative opening short and sweet, transitioning into the first minor or major event well before the tension in your story goes slack and the audience loses interest.
There are times when an environment itself is critical to the plot. Perhaps the city is burning, or a character is sailing into the heart of an uncharted frontier. In such cases, describing the setting before launching into action or character interaction can be critical in establishing context and mood. In such cases, it can be effective to open a scene with a bit of description, framing key details of the setting before putting things into motion.
When crafting a descriptive opening, focus only on the sensory details that are important to the character and that demonstrate the significance or novelty of the setting, rather than overwhelming the reader with a thick slab of description. With this type of opening, the setting will be establishing the atmosphere and momentum rather than immediate action, so try to choose descriptive language that is conducive to the emotional overtone you are attempting to create. As I have discussed before, with descriptive language, less is usually more. This means that a handful of well-chosen details will serve your needs better than long lists of tepid nouns and verbs.
Include metaphor, simile, and other constructions of prose to further reinforce the meaning and feeling of your setting, showing the reader why your characters find it so engaging and unique. It is often best to use what I call the funnel approach when describing a new setting, starting with the general (large strokes) and then dialing down into more specific sensory details, the same process you would undergo if you were experiencing a new place for the first time. Show the impact that the environment is having on your characters directly, revealing the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing in response to entering this place.
As with any other well-crafted opening, setting openings should contain a hook that draws the reader into the scene and leaves them wanting to know more.
Another type of narrative opening consists of a well-pruned block of exposition, either provided directly by the narrator or simply told if the style is third person limited (or unlimited) omniscient. While there is a danger of boring your audience by burying them under a mountain of raw information, exposition can be a powerful way to provide them with a great deal of context in a few short paragraphs. This kind of opening is most useful when the history of a place or character is vital to grasping the meaning of the action to follow. But beware of overdosing your reader with a deluge of actionless information. With large blocks of exposition, it is useful to space things out with small bits of action, dialogue, or inner monologue to help keep things fresh and the reader’s attention from wondering. Try to limit the information you provide to details that are relevant to the rest of your scene, and save other bits of exposition for later on (when it becomes directly pertinent).
Another time when this type of opening is helpful is when no characters are on scene, or the ones that are around do not possess the necessary knowledge or memories. If you do use exposition openings in your novel, be sparing with them, saving them for scenes where the context and meaning cannot be concisely delivered via other techniques.
The final category of opening I want to share with you involves what I call character openings. Here, rather than starting off with action or background, you launch right into some manner of character interaction. This can take the form of a conversation or inner monologue, or via a more physical engagement (overlapping a bit with conflict openings). In these cases, begin the scene with the key interaction and its significance and then intersperse other bits of context and action as you go.
Character openings are best saved for when the resolution of the interaction is a vital point in the plotline, or when they create or resolve a conflict that is central to a character’s arc. They tend to be the most powerful/impactful when the reader already possesses a clear idea of who is speaking, as well as why the outcome of this interaction is important to the characters and plot. Put another way, simply launching into a conversation without the proper context is unlikely to hook your audience and carry the momentum of the scene forwards in an effective manner (although a carefully constructed conversation can certainly provide its own context).
Character openings should center on clear goals and longings as well as the barriers preventing the characters from obtaining their desires. When using them, you should have a good idea:
- What the characters most want and need at this moment.
- How they plan to achieve these goals.
- What opposing force is standing in their way.
- Who will help them to attain their goal and who is actively (or passively) working against them.
Keep in mind that character goals should always be tied to the core plot or a subplot, driving the story forwards or moving the characters along in their arcs.
Continuing on from our murder mystery example, a solid character opening might begin with the protagonist detective sitting alone with the primary suspect, waiting for backup to arrive. This is the first face to face showdown between these powerful opposing forces, and it would be a perfect time to begin with a conversation. Everything so far in the story has been leading up to this moment, when the antagonist and protagonist come face to face. Every exchange, every word and reaction between them, is dripping with tension and meaning as they probe one another for weakness.
Exercise: Picking the best opening for your scene
In this exercise, you are going to do a bit of experimentation, deciding through trial and error which style of opening to use for your scene, as well as obtaining bit of practice in drafting each type. The idea here is fairly simple. First, go ahead and review everything you have written or brainstormed so far, then try writing a few paragraphs using each of the three types of openings we have discussed above (action, narrative, and character).
Most of the time, as soon as you draft a few sentences, something should tell you that one of these types is the best fit for the scene you are working on. But even if this happens, try to draft some openings in the other styles as well. Sometimes this kind of experimentation can lead you to new and exciting places you might not have otherwise visited, and it will also help you to develop a feel for which type of opening works best at various places in your narrative.
4) Deciding on a major event and the minor events that will embellish it
In many ways, the most critical component of any scene is the major event it contains. A well-chosen major event lays a foundation that grants the rest of your scene its form and function and provides a stable framework to build upon. Sometimes when drafting a scene, this event will already be clear in your mind, providing you with a concrete center to construct the rest of your action around. But other times, you might only know that you need to place a scene between two major plot points, and the nature of the events contained within might not be so obvious. In this context, the term “event” can refer to any type of interaction between characters and/or their environments that significantly changes one aspect of the scene (tone, meaning, tension, character goals, etc.) or your plot as a whole.
A single scene is in many ways a complete story in and of itself, often focused on a major event that drives the plot forwards. In general, I find it best to limit a given scene to a single major event, as this helps to ensure a tight focus that makes it easy for your reader to follow along. If you want to include a second major event involving the same time, location, and characters, consider starting a new chapter or subchapter (this also gives you the option of changing up the PoV character). When considering the nature and specific details of your major event, begin by reminding yourself of the purpose of the scene, the reason why it is vital to some aspect of your plot (core plot, subplot, or character arc) as well as why the reader should care about what is happening.
For additional advice on determining the exact nature of your major events and their corresponding conflicts, take another look at my previous entry on planning out your plot.
Major vs. minor events
While a given scene should generally only include a single major event, it is common to layer in one or more minor events to further establish atmosphere or momentum or to provide critical information to the reader. The division between major and minor events is one I have created in order to help structure my chapters, subchapters, and scenes. In essence, the difference between the two is that minor events might only affect a given scene or chapter, while major events impact the overall progression of the narrative. The major event of a scene should represent the most important occurrence that happens within it, the one that has the highest stakes or whose outcome will significantly affect the story ahead.
Each chapter should be structured around one or more (if you are using subchapters) major events, while minor events are generally used for transitions, pacing, and altering the present mood or level of tension.
Types/purposes of minor events:
- To provide contrast (a foil) for the major event to come (the quiet before the storm).
- To help set up big events ahead of time (key details, foreshadowing).
- To help transition from one location/mood/time to another.
- To form an intersection between various subplots and the novel’s core plot.
Scenes of rising vs. falling tension
Perhaps the most important consideration when deciding on the major event of your scene is whether it is a scene of rising or falling tension/action. Scenes of rising tension tend to possess major events that are structured like mini-climaxes, while scenes of falling tension tend to focus more on the inner worlds and relationships of your central characters.
Exercise: Selecting the best major event for your scene
Now, there is no way for me to provide you with a specific formula for how to construct the major events of your novel. They simply vary too much from story to story and depend heavily on your own unique writing style. That being said, here is a simple exercise you can use to help whet your creative pallet, as well as to flesh out existing ideas with a bit more detail.
How to decide on the focus of your major events:
Begin by reviewing the purpose and atmosphere of your scene, as well as the opening and any other minor events leading up to the major event you have sketched out so far. Then write down or review any ideas you have come up with regarding the major event before filling in the categories below as completely as you can.
- Who is present (or nearby) for this scene?
- Which characters are most important to the conflict/resolution at hand?
- Who has something important to gain or lose, or is experiencing powerful emotions tied to the outcome?
- Who else is nearby but not central to the main event?
- Who might be included to help compliment or contrast the meaning and mood of the event?
- Do the central characters in the scene focuses on possess clear intentions?
- What is happening?
- What is the main source of conflict and what are the stakes of its resolution?
- What are the key physical actions of the event?
- What are its corresponding psychological reactions and emotions?
- Is this the most powerful way to drive the plot forwards?
- Is this the most engaging manner in which to resolve the event?
- Was the resolution earned by the characters?
- Will it satisfy the reader?
- Why does this event matter in the immediate (and grand) scheme of things?
- Does it help to significantly advance the plot or reveal a vital bit of character?
- Was the meaning of the event set up adequately before hand?
- Is this the best place in the overall plot/narrative for this particular event?
- Does the setting for the major event reinforce the mood of the scene?
- Is this the best setting for the event out of the ones you have already crafted?
- Do the time of day, weather, and other transient properties of the setting help to amplify the meaning of the event?
5) Picking the best closing for your scene
Your closings should compliment and complete your opening and main event, granting the chapter or subchapter the feeling of being a (more or less) complete short story. In a broad sense, you have the same options as far as content as you do with your openings, in that your closings can consist of action, narration, or character interaction. The biggest difference between openings and closings is that closings are designed to leave your reader with something to ponder. A bit of something to chew on until they have time to sit down and read some more of your novel. A good closing should feel like a place where you can slide in a bookmark and walk away for a bit, having swallowed a complete bite of story while reading the paired scene.
Just like your openings, your closes should contain a hook that will encourage the reader to come back soon (or just keep right on turning those pages). Or put another way, the end of every scene should leave your audience wanting to know more. Keeping with our original taxonomy, in continuation and complete scenes, the ending should be the culmination of the events they follow, while in cliffhanger scenes, the action, revelation, or culmination will break away at a critical moment without offering the reader a full resolution.
This is a bit more nuanced than ending every scene with a riveting cliffhanger, as they are a powerful tool, but also one that is easy to overuse. In fact, even though I call incomplete scenes cliffhanger scenes in this blog, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that an effective cliffhanger always needs to cut away in the middle of some manner of critical action. In fact, if you overuse this type of cliffhanger, they will begin to lose their power as your closings become more predictable. Instead, think of a good cliffhanger as containing a note that will leave the reader unsatisfied. They were invested in the outcome of these events, but some aspect has not been fully resolved to their satisfaction, although there seems to be a promise that these details will come in a later section. In this sense, a complete or continuation scene ends with the tension of the present conflict fully resolved, while a cliffhanger leaves some element of tension still simmering away, encouraging your reader to continue on to the next section, or to come back to the book as soon as time permits.
These types of “cliffhangers” can involve the central characters in the midst of grappling with powerful emotions, or of an interpersonal conflict that has yet to be fully resolved. They can include a new (and often even more serious) obstacle placed in the path of your character’s goals, or of obtaining a want that does not truly satisfy the deeper, underlying need.
As I mentioned above, along with your openings, your closings should contain some manner of hook. A little something that will tug at the edges of your reader’s awareness, granting them an exciting question or surprise to mull over as they go about their daily lives while gently pulling them back to the story you have created.
Some common closing hooks include:
- A significant setback.
- A major revelation, either fully or partially explained.
- A cliffhanger that cuts away before the action is resolved.
- A new mystery is unveiled, one that the reader will want to know the answer to.
- A plot twist, taking the story in a new and unexpected direction.
- The fake out: providing your reader with a red herring or false impression that will set up a plot twist to follow.
As with so many other aspects of your story, variety is vital to keeping your reader engaged and on their toes. Your closings should be satisfying and make sense in the context of their paired scene, but also take the reader in unexpected and fulfilling directions.
Exercise: Trying out a few possible closings
This is similar to the exercise on scene openings above, so take a second look at it before jumping into this one. To get started, simply ponder the possibilities (or go through my list of brainstorming questions) on how to end your scene until you have two or three approaches that might work. Then try writing up a closing in each style and see which one your gut tells you is the best fit for your story and scene.
As time goes by, you will develop a natural sense for what works best for you in what context, meaning that you will increasingly know how you want to open and close a given scene without the need for as much experimentation.
Well, that’s all the material I have for today’s blog on scenecrafting 101. I hope that you find this entry useful as you start to develop your own unique scenecrafting process. Please come back and join me for a deeper dive on the various aspects of scenecrafting in the next major installation of this blog coming soon.
Now it’s time to move onto the culminating exercise for this section on the drafting process: Drafting the first scene of your novel.
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.