Tag Archives: description


So I started writing chapter 4 of Diffusion, the sequel to my fantasy book. And this is the first scene readers get with Josephine Delumiere, the Soulforged character from the first book. (Picture a “paladin” from Dungeons & Dragons, or some sort of holy warrior whose order alone is empowered to stand against the Fractured creatures of darkness that spawn throughout the world.)
In the first book, and in all four books that I have planned in my head, Josephine always had long blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun. Maybe that started with my wife’s World of Warcraft character, who once upon a time (before they put in a Barber Shop) was a blonde with long hair. 

But as I wrote the scene, suddenly Jo showed up with a haircut–short, unkempt, easy to care for, nothing for an enemy to grab hold of… the sort of “do” that you can run your fingers through and call it good to go. Enough hair to wave in the winds as Josephine dashes with divinely empowered speed, but nowhere near the length that for literally eight years up until half an hour ago I had always envisioned on this character.

Something like this sketch I whipped up in about twenty seconds for my wife…

I’m no fan of what I’ve heard described as “character development by haircut.” Tris Prior getting a short, pixie chop-job in Insurgent is the most recent example I can think of. So I’m not trying to tie a new hairstyle to some “new” Josephine.

But this is one of those rare instances where a character comes along, surprises me, and says, “Hey, I know you had such-and-such planned. I did this instead. Deal with it.”


And awesome.

I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m having a blast.

Elements of Critique: Voice

Watching kids learn to speak is one of my favorite parenting experiences.

I had my three year old in the car on a quick errand. We decided to bring lunch home to wifey and the other kidlets, so I asked my son where we should go.

“Umm… we need… cake pop!” (He recently tried a Starbucks cake pop for the first time.) “And I want… Power-ate!” (He has also developed a love for blue PowerAde.)

“So, Starbucks for cake pops, then McDonalds to get lunch and PowerAde?”

He replies, “Yeah. That is good idea!”

No one intentionally taught him the concept of a “good idea.” He’s learning and developing his own patterns of speech from what he hears us saying. He’s developing his own voice.

I have four children. I know what each of them sounds like, but I also know innately how they speak. Give them a bit of information to communicate, and it’s going to come out four very different ways–no surprise, because we each have our own way of speaking.

When critiquing, I look for a consistent voice that seems authentic to the character or the writer.

Consistency matters because once a voice is established, any break in it will create a distraction. If a character speaks with a drawl and drops the ‘g’ in all ‘-ing’ words, then I expect to see that telltale sign in the dialogue throughout the entire story. (Of course, writers must beware. The difficulty of reading altered spelling to depict an accent or dialect might outweigh any desired benefit.

If a character speaks with formality, thus she does not use contractions or vulgar speech, that may be a fine way to give her a voice. I will watch to see if she breaks that form at some point for reasons that don’t advance the story. (The prim and proper lady who curses in the face of mounting difficulties might be a way to show the reader how the stress is affecting her.)

In non-fiction, the writer’s voice still shines through, and must be consistent. If the piece is informal, such as a blog post, then maybe levity and an “at-home” sense of freely flowing speech would be appropriate. The writer might type out exactly what he would say out loud if the reader were sitting across a table. On the other hand, if a piece is more academic, then levity and familiarity in writing would not serve the purpose. That shift in voice would probably feel out of place or even inappropriate.

Consistency builds up the authenticity of the character or writer. Once I know how they “speak,” I come to believe them. They seem more real or influential as I read.

Authenticity comes from the writer knowing their own style or that of the character. I know I have missed something concerning authentic voice when a reader says, “I can’t hear the hero saying that. It sounds wrong to me.” I will note that if I am critiquing and find such an instance.

The problem might be a choice of words that doesn’t match the setting or tone of the piece. I had a teenager in a fantasy novel replying to an adult woman in an argument with “Lady.” Not “my lady” at the end of a statement, but “I don’t know what you expected, lady.” The biting tone might have been correct, but the word choice sounds far too modern.

Word choice can also trip writers up when we grab words without a good understanding of their nuances. Like a child using a word the wrong way because they don’t fully grasp its meaning, a writer armed with a thesaurus can be a dangerous thing. Without careful attention, we might see constructs like “the aroma of sewage” and “the stench of fresh-baked pie.” The words are correct for which of the five senses is utilized. But clearly they’re not the right words for the job.

Similar issues might arise from “Word of the Day” aids, new words we discover and love, or attempts at showy and evocative description. The words we select must feel natural; writing that calls attention to itself misses the point. Usually this is where I find metaphors that don’t quite translate and descriptions that fall flat.

In most of these cases, I will highlight, offer what that passage said to me, and offer a suggestion on how to clarify or fix the issue. That way writers can learn how readers receive their words, and make appropriate changes.

That creates a better piece now and a stronger voice and more consistent writer down the road.

And that, for certain, is “good idea!”

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.

Elements of Critique: Show vs. Tell

“You never show me that you love me anymore!”

In some marriages (not mine of course, no, never) the couple sometimes discuss the status of their romance, and the above quote can (in rare cases) spill out into the open.

The man–assuming it’s the man being told this–will probably try to deflect the conversation with, “But I told you I loved you just the other month, and on our anniversary a couple years ago.”

We can safely doubt the success of that argument. Usually the complaint is coupled with examples of actions undone, such as “You don’t bring me flowers,” or “You haven’t done that thing I asked you to do every week for the last six months,” or perhaps “Will you stop typing on that stupid blog for a few minutes and stay awake long enough to have a conversation more than two grunts with me?”

(Note: No specific examples from my experience were utilized in the above paragraph.)

A similar complaint may sometimes arise: “You never tell me that you love me!”

The man being told this, in this case–although again it is wild speculation to assume it’s the man–may resort to defenses such as “But I did X, Y and Z.” In other words, “But I showed you how important you are to me by doing some action.”

Yet sometimes, a person likes to be simply told a thing they need to hear.

While I would never resort to critiquing such marital dysfunction–being far too humble and also unfamiliar with those frustrations common to less blissful pairings–I choose this eminently relatable example to demonstrate today’s topic of Showing vs. Telling.

There’s a simple truth in the above analogy: “Actions speak louder than words.” Most of what we need as readers (and what to look for when critiquing a piece) are the actions characters do which reveal their thoughts, motives, feelings, and goals. The default rule among writers is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Here’s an example of hyper-telling to drive the point home:

The chill made Jo uncomfortable because it was so cold. Thankfully, she was so mad that she hardly noticed. She was so mad in fact that she was infuriated. There was lots of snow.

This should pain our inner editor to read.

Jo could shiver. Her teeth could chatter. The writer could describe her breath coming out in clouds around her face. Is snow still falling? Could it be?

Jo could clench her fists, or stomp around in the snow. She could mutter an imaginary argument with the object of her anger. Or maybe her thought might show us that she’s ignoring the cold because she’s seething and burning inside.

Any showing is better than the example provided.

Showing lets the reader play amateur psychologist and decipher characters’ personalities from their outward actions. Showing tells the reader what they need to know, without merely telling them a fact like a textbook.

Even my dripping sarcasm in the analogy at the beginning of this post tells the reader something without simply coming out and stating a fact. Humor and sarcasm can be a way of showing. (Warning: I do not recommend this method during arguments like those in the opening analogy.)

The default rule is correct. I look for writing that shows exceptionally well, and highlight that for praise. I also look for writing that merely tells when showing would better support the story and invest me in the characters. That I highlight for rewriting with a suggestion or example.

However, “Show, Don’t Tell” is only the default rule. There are always exceptions. First, some things aren’t important enough to the story or to establishing the scene to merit showing. Second, when dealing with anything supernatural or out of the ordinary expected experience of a reader, some telling is merited.

In fantasy and sci-fi, for example, a character may use technology or special powers unique to the story world and thus unfamiliar to the reader. A good way of doing this is to adjust the rule and play Show and Tell. The reader gets a description of what this mysterious thing looks like or what happens when it is used, and then they get a snippet of information about it.

Something similar applies to unfamiliar concepts in other writing. A religious piece might need to explain some of the theology or background information supporting the provided description. A non-fiction piece might relate the unknown new to something the average reader would understand.

Whle this is “telling” and thus arguably forbidden, it helps ground the reader in the reality of the setting. When I critique and find myself reading a showy description that leaves me clueless about what just happened, that’s something to note for the writer’s attention and revision. Likewise, when I find a useful tidbit of telling coupled with showing, I try to highlight that and praise the writer’s effort.

Because, as always, critiquing is about building up more skillful and confident writers. A thorough critique doesn’t just tell them “Good job.” It shows them what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.

Where are we going from here on the A to Z blog challenge? Well, I feel like a Time Lord writing this, but tomorrow in the future, we get to visit the present and the past. Grab your sonic screwdriver and charge up the flux capacitor. Get in your T.A.R.D.I.S. or deLorean, because things are going to get tense.

Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.