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Writing Books/Three questions that have been bugging me


Good morning,

There are three things I've always wanted to know more about in writing, and I hope you can give all of us writers some insight on this.

My first question is about character description. What I want to better understand is how much is too much and if it's ever ok to describe characters all in one go?

I've read works, both published books and online works of fanfiction, where I've seen both sides to it. I've seen people write it out nicely; their words have a natural flow and the descriptions tend to be short, so that they are able to write out the character descriptions further out in the story.

Then I've seen works where it's just overkill, either when describing the characters at once or when describing them overtime. For example, when writing about the characters in one setting the speech tends to be too much and is just far too flowery that it would exhaust a reader. Similarly, when they try to describe the characters throughout the course of the work it feels so forced and repetitive; for ex "she rolled her crystal blue eyes" "she widened her beautiful blue eyes" "her golden hair was covering her pretty blue eyes" in almost one chapter.

At times it feels like overkill. However, I have noticed that in certain stories (mainly fanfiction) it's used a lot when introducing readers to new characters. So in the case of fanfiction, is it overkill or is it fine?

One of the main reasons I ask this is because I'm working on a fanfiction project where people have submitted their own characters and I'm going to use them in the story. My only concern is how can I make sure it doesn't like overkill when I'm describing their characters? And how much am I meant to describe? I hope my question makes sense?

My second question is about dialogue. I've been struggling a bit with this because what I write tends to sound forced and unnatural. I understand the idea that each character speaks differently from one another. The biggest example I've seen in real life is my cousin and I. I tend to use more descriptive words, longer terms, expressions and such. She speaks shortly and the point, and at times with cliche words like "Yup" and "like" and "totally" and such more. So I'm trying to do this in a few of my projects. However, I'm not very satisfied with what I'm writing and to me it just sounds...fake? I'm not sure how to describe it exactly but I'm not really happy with the dialogue. What can I do to improve dialogue? How can I make it sound like how I think it should be? I do try the method of narrating my ideas and speech out loud, but it doesn't always help. I also have a beta reader (mainly my friend and my sister).

My third and final question is about showing/not telling. Having recently graduated from university I have switched from writing freely and saving the critique for the end to becoming more like an editor about what I say. If you ask me to pen out an essay of any kind I'm perfectly able to do it. But if you ask me now to write a 200 word story about a young boy and his dog I'm stuck. Even before writing down my words I immediately don't like it and try to think of something else, and on the cases where I tell my editor to keep quiet and let me pen something I don't like what I've actually written down. I guess you can say I'm just very critical of my work and that nothing I write satisfies me at all? This is a bit of a two part question because what I'd like to know is firstly how to show and not tell since essay writing has made me do the complete opposite, and secondly how can I stop being way too critical of my work and just learn to love what I write?

Regarding the latter bit I talk to myself, constantly reminding me that I'm more or less out of practice so it's going to be very awkward at first but eventually I'll get back into the swing - like riding a bike after such a very long time. But this is a struggle because I'm not convinced by thoughts most of the time, so it really feels like I'm just dancing around in circles aimlessly.

And that was all she wrote - thank you so much for your time.

Hi Emily,

I notice that a lot of your problems seem to gravitate around the show/tell conflict (even character descriptions are a part of showing). This is one of the most common issues experienced by writers.

I'll start by addressing the issue of character descriptions. This is a big one. As you have noted, there are a variety of ways to execute this. It's important to remember what aspects of the character's physical description will be relevant to the story. If you are writing a FanFic with a number of characters developed by other parties, you will need to sift through the selection and determine which characters are main characters with traits important to the story. The eye colour of a minor character usually is not going to matter to the readers (unless something significant in the story is directly related to the colour of his or her eyes). Readers have imaginations, too, and can develop images for characters where you leave room.

I always advise writers to avoid straight-out descriptions. Any time a book says, "she had blonde hair and blue eyes," I am turned off by the telling. I also avoid overly flowery descriptions, such as, "her golden hair swept to the side, her bangs covering one blue eye." However, I'd prefer the latter in a case of comparison. What I would recommend is for the writer to find some sort of balance between the two. Incorporate a character's physical traits into the story. One way to do this is during an action performed by the character. Even the second example is intended solely as a description, having no other purpose to the story. Instead, try something like, "she tugged at her golden forelock in thought." Now we see that not only does she have blonde hair, but she has bangs. In addition, we know that she is considering something, which may be related to something occurring around her in the story. Another technique you may consider is allowing other characters to do the describing for you. A close friend fondly calling her "Blondie" can do the job without any further narration required. This can also work for nicknames such as "Shorty".

Another character's sarcasm can also open the doors for the author to narrate description. A close friend calling a tall character "Shorty" can allow you to explain through narration without having to force the subject.

Having characters look up or look down at other characters can indicate height, as well.

Although I don't recommend giving a description dump of each character, I also don't recommend spreading the descriptions out over the course of the story. The main reason I suggest you avoid this is that readers need to develop an image early on in the story. If you don't reveal that the main character is a redhead until a third of the way into the story, it will mess up their visualization of him.

I had a meeting with a woman yesterday, during which we discussed her manuscript. Through the entire document, she never failed to mention the MC's hazel eyes. As I said to her, we only need to be told once. If you want the reader to know a character's eye colour, then mention it one time and leave it at that. I assume that if her eyes were hazel the first time she rolled them, they will be the next time as well.

If you're writing a first-person or third-limited piece, then a sound method is to describe characters as the MC is observing them. But again, not to the extremes. Describe only as is relevant or necessary to the plot of the story. Not everything will be. Allow for the readers to help you out by letting them use their imaginations.

As a side note, do not base writing techniques solely on what you see in other FanFics. These are almost never professional pieces, and the writers more often than not have little idea of what is considered legal or effective in the laws of writing.

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I will address the issue of dialogue now. It is so important to avoid unrealistic dialogue! Think about how we speak in everyday conversation. We use slang and usually do not speak with proper English.
Beginning authors tend to make every character speak with 100% perfect diligence, thus the speakers tend to use more direct words, saying "I have" and "there is" where you or I would say "I've" or "there's". In real life, we don't often speak with such precision, but rather more casually.

When we're having a conversation with one another (and I mention this because I see it often in novice writing) we do not repetitively refer to each other by name, unless we are trying to get the other party's attention or are surrounded by a large group and wish to address a single person.  

Imagine this, two people run into each other at a bookstore:

Person 1: Hi, Pauline! How are you?
Person 2: I'm great, Chris. Imagine meeting you here.
Person 1: I know! What’re you doing here today, Pauline? I thought you had work.
Person 2: I'm on my lunch break, Chris. I slipped out of the office to buy the new release.
Person 1: No kidding, Pauline! I'm here for the same thing!

Sounds kind of...well, wrong, doesn't it? It's very strained, and we already know to whom each person is speaking, so there really is no need to throw each other's name around.

To make your characters and their dialogue more believable, try creating unique vernaculars for each individual.
•   Maybe one character speaks with excessive slang.
•   Maybe one tries too hard to sound educated and uses large words, some to which he doesn't even know the meaning.
•   Maybe one speaks like the everyday average individual in his country.
•   Maybe one has just arrived from another country and is still trying to learn English, thereby using words in places that don't always make sense to the other characters.

Giving each of your characters a vernacular unique to only him or her, not only makes your story more realistic, but it also helps develop the character as an individual.

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Ah! Showing, not telling! One of the most important parts of creative writing! The key here is to express emotions through actions, rather than telling what a character is thinking or feeling.

How do you describe someone who is passionately angry? Don't say, "he was mad," don't even say, "he was passionately angry." Think about what we do or what happens to us when we are angry. A darkening face, heavy breathing, striking a tabletop, or a raised voice can show readers that a character is angry without them having to be told. A loss for words can convey a sense of disbelief for whatever is angering the character. Think about the actions of the emotion, rather than the emotion itself.

However, you have to be careful to show the actions. Last year a writer came to me with this question:

"Everything I write keeps coming out like: Iris walked to the door and opened it. She walked outside. What can I do to make it more fluid?"

Within the example, there is no showing whatsoever - you're telling me exactly what is happening. My advice for you is to start by recognizing what is telling and what is showing.

Unfortunately, we cannot show people actual pictures with words. So instead, we must describe it in a way that readers can mentally visualize what we want them to see. So we know that Iris walks to the door, opens it, and then walks out. Can we see what's happening? Yes, we can. However, there is no scene here. We are focused entirely on Iris walking through the door. And even so, it's not very exciting to read something designed with this structure.

What we have here, is actually something I see often when writing critiques. I call it "Timeline Structure," for the simple reason that it is set up as: this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Good for relaying events verbally, but not ideal for storytelling, or rather "storyshowing" as it should be called.

Let's focus on this sentence, here. A writer doesn't need to describe every small action like this; especially not in simple sentences. In addition, we need to consider the scene, Iris’ facial expressions and body language, and other characters in the scene, if they are present. The big issue is not that it's too wordy, or even that there's too much detail, but rather that it is lacking the right words and we're putting detail on the wrong things. Someone walking through a doorway, does very little to enhance the story, unless it is a doorway to sudden death, or something like that.

We can also avoid telling, by finding alternate ways to say what we want to say. Instead of saying, "Myles opened the doors," we can say, "April gazed up at the imposing double doors as Myles forced them open." This way, we are given a bit of imagery. We see him struggling to open them, and thus make the connection that the doors are stuck, or difficult to open. We are better able to form a picture in our minds.    

Likewise, instead of saying, "They walked down the hallway," we can say, "April and her friends followed their guide down the corridor, where it split and ran to both the left and right." Now we aren't directly telling readers that they were walking, but we're implying it by saying that they followed their guide.

This doesn't mean you should go around implying everything that happens in your story. You should only use this technique to avoid telling.

Remember, never rely on adverbs and speech tags! These may seem like good ways of showing, but they’re actually disguised mechanics of telling!

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The last question is the most difficult for me to answer, because it is a personal problem - not something that can be solved through any tried-and-true writing techniques. Loving your own writing is not always easy, but you can start by writing about events and characters that you love. If you love the content of your story, then you will be more inspired to improve the way you tell it. Even if you fail a few times, your sheer love for the story should be enough to push you forward.

I had rewritten my last manuscript 44 times and still found myself dissatisfied with my writing. There have been times when I felt like giving it up, or that maybe I wasn't meant to write this one, but my love for the story helped me to hold on and I finally reached a point where I knew there was nothing more I could do to improve the story on my own. That's the point you need to reach as a writer - then it's all to the editors!

I hope I was able to answer your questions in a way that makes sense. If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to ask me or one of the other experts.


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Jamie Darrach


I can answer just about any question regarding the composition, editing, and publishing procedures for all forms of literature. I will give aspiring authors ample tips on how to strengthen plot, how make story-lines and characters credible, how to improve visual description and dialogue, and how to make works flow easily and naturally. In addition, I can give writers advice on how to adequately edit and revise their works. I have knowledge of the literary market, and can advise writers in which route would be best for their piece, including offer examples of presses and agents who work with manuscripts in the author's category.


I have been writing for eleven years, having completed fourteen novels, several short stories, and countless pieces of poetry. I am experienced in multiple genres. I have worked as a copy-editor and critic for aspiring authors. I have researched the literary market from inside-out, and can provide much information to writers who are seeking advice.

College for BA in English

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