Pub Rants

Watch That Over-Telling

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STATUS: For it be close to 100 degrees here in Denver is just downright unnatural. Don’t even get me started about global warming. If you haven’t seen AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, you should.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? COOL CHANGE by Little River Band (appropriate, isn’t it?)

I’m finally getting back to reading my sample pages inbox. I know. I’m way behind. But I’ve been noticing an interesting writing trend that I thought I would share with my blog populace.

Some writers have an annoying habit of restating (via a thought their main character has) what has already been made apparent by the scene or the dialogue.

For example, let’s say that two characters are having an angry exchange in a spot of dialogue. Then the writer will write something right after that reads, “Jane could tell that John was angry.”

I’m making this up as you can tell but the premise is sound. The “not nice” part of me wants to say, “Well, duh. You just showed me that through the dialogue that’s on the page. You shouldn’t have to tell me that the character has figured out that the other person is angry.”

So, I’m just asking you be on the look out for this in your own writing and delete any extraneous telling that might hinder your story.

Just this bit of tightening can make a HUGE difference.

32 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Thanks very much for the tip. I’ve learned so much about the little details since completing the first draft of my novel, that it’s actually refreshing to be able to go back over it and see things like that glaring back at me, rather than being concealed by my ignorance like they were the first time through. Makes me feel like my story’s actually getting better ;).

  2. Kristine said:

    agent blogs are great, because it’s the best method to find out what they’re thinking and what they want from writers. It’s always interesting to visit. I actually find agent blogs more interesting than writers blogs, because agents know so much more about this business.

    also, about global warming: the truth is always inconvenient to repubs. how dare the weather interfere with their agenda!

  3. Kristin said:

    Reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” made me hyper aware of this…of course, I still make that mistake from time to time. He also made the really good point that even a description of a character’s reaction can go overboard–every little eyebrow raise or twinkle in the eye. If you write decent dialogue, it should be clear to the reader what kinds of emotions are coming across.

    Thanks for reminding us writers how important it is to scrutinize for repetitive things like this in our writing.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Ack! No global warming debate, please. I can state any number of facts to refute Gore’s exaggerated data. I hate for a very nice blog to turn into a political debate.

    We had snow in very late April, which was highly unusual for our area, but not unheard of in the last 30+ years of local weather. I am sure if you look back in Denver’s weather history there have been strangely hot days from time to time.

  5. Katie Alender said:

    I read a (published) book earlier this year where the character ranted and raved for twelve lines of dialogue, and then it said, “Polly was upset.”

    You think?

  6. Katie Alender said:

    Ooh, can I say one more? “Nodded” is not an okay substitute for “said”. It’s a totally different concept.

    “That’s just what I was thinking,” Jemma nodded.


    “That’s just what I was thinking.” Jemma nodded.

    And who nods after they verbally agree?

    Okay, done now, thank you!

  7. pjd said:

    Whenever I notice something like “Jane could tell John was angry,” I figure it means I’ve written weak dialog. A few years ago I tried writing a one-act play (if acted, it would probably run 15-20 minutes) just to see how it would be. What a challenge it is to move an entire story forward–plot, character, emotion, conflict, etc.–using only dialog and the occasional stage direction. It turned out quite good for a first effort, but the lessons I learned about dialog were invaluable.

  8. BuffySquirrel said:

    Nice try, anon2. Start a debate on global warming by being the first person to disagree, then insist we not have a debate, thereby giving yourself the last word. Claim you have facts to support your argument, but don’t actually produce anyway. Think I’ve seen these tactics on a list of ways to prevent discussions.

  9. Anonymous said:

    I agree, Buffy Squirrel. Anon 4:07, if you actually paid attention to what Gore was saying instead of planning how you would refute him later, you would now recall that it was clearly stated that not all effects would warming in nature, but that weather extremes of all types could be expected.

    Let’s see: 18 inches of rain in 24 hours in a Texas town that, I believe, averages less than 5 inches (not sure on that one exactly) a year; a snow-out of Cleveland Indians in April – most of us actually got three feet; hurricane seasons run amok. Oh, and did I forget the disappearance of the Polar ice cap? Silly me!

    Just so you understand: no amount of denial will change facts. They are what they are no matter how loudly the naysayers scream.

  10. Aryn Kennedy said:

    My writing teacher called it “summarizing.” You can do it by either summing up the passage of dialogue with a line, or summing up the internal dialogue and emotions with a line. Either way, he said “don’t do it.”

  11. Kristin said:

    Stop, people! No more global warming!!!!!!!!!! This is a place to discuss writing, agenting, etc. Go back to your corners.

  12. Reid said:

    “Please, people! No more talk about global warming! If I hear one more word about global warming, I’ll make sure that writer is blackballed from the industry forever! I’ll block their Blogger account, and if I see them at a convention, I’ll punch them square in the face.”

    Reid could tell that Kristen was angry.

  13. Karen Duvall said:

    I once heard one of the Ohio Workshop teachers call this “two-by-four writing.” Cracked me up.

    How about 5 pages of argument about a bed. Yeah. Seriously. And lots of redundancies in there as well, if the very subject doesn’t get monotonous enough. I think the writer was going for conflict. Sigh. The issue of conflict is so misunderstood.

  14. Anonymous said:

    Okay, totally agree that after an agry exchange it is poor form to write, “Joe knew Susie was angry.” But there is a place for telling, and it’s not always easy to distinguish overtelling from telling that enhances the story.

    For example, how else to show one character’s misinterpretation of another’s behavior,or to deepen a generic emotion, e.g. anger,into say anger tinged with humiliation? It’s access to a character’s introspection that differentiates a novel from a screen play.

  15. Anonymous said:

    20,000 years ago Iowa was covered in miles-thick glaciers and now people are running around freaking about “global warming”.

    As if RIGHT NOW is the optimal climate for the planet, or EXACTLY THIRTY YEARS AGO, or INSERT YOUR PREFERRED CLIMATE PERIOD HERE, and, most importantly, as if we could actually intentionally do anything about it one way or the other.

    Kristin, kindly don’t get US started about global warming, or gun control, or terrorism, or whether Paris Hilton really is going to dedicate her life to do goodism.

    You have a great blog about publishing, commenting on other controversial topics only deflects from the reason for the blog and the reason we’re here.

  16. Southern Writer said:

    “That’s just what I was thinking,” Jemma nodded.


    “No” is right. Real people don’t nod dialogue. They say things and they gesture, but all the nodding, head-shaking and eyebrow-raising in the world won’t produce a sound.

    “That’s just what I was thinking.” Jemma nodded.

    “That’s just what I was thinking,” Jemma said, nodding.

    Jemma nodded. “That’s just what I was thinking.”

    At least, as far as I know. Some editor might set me straight.

  17. pyrotechniques said:

    Agent Kristin aaarged, “For it be close to 100 degrees here…”

    Oh no! Is it Talk Like a Pirate Day already?

  18. someday-writer said:

    Thank you so much for this tip! I have never been quite clear on what it is when agents or editors say “don’t tell, show”. Thank you so much for addressing this!

  19. JanW said:

    Agent Kristen who is listening to LRB: excellent choice! A cool change on a hot summer day in Australia is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. The hot north wind does a complete 180 and comes in across the Southern Ocean. When it happens, your soul sings.

  20. Anonymous said:

    From anon 6:12 – Sorry Kristin – I have to learn not to respond when the time/place is inappropriate. Writerly thoughts only from now on.

  21. Diana Peterfreund said:

    I’m always amused when blog readers get into a debate about what is and is not appropriate for a blogger to talk about on THEIR OWN BLOG.

    You’re not paying for anything here, folks. KN is giving out free advice. Listen, don’t listen. Pay attention to the purple non sequiturs at the top or don’t. Next you’ll be telling her that she has no right to be publicizing Australian rock bands by listing them on her iPod.


  22. KathryneBAlfred said:

    This is where having great readers comes in REALLY handy. My critique group catches all of those repetitive telling moments in the first draft–and then I make sure to avoid them on my own, because I don’t want to get that comment anymore.

  23. Linnea Sinclair said:

    “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne & King is an excellent resource to use to clear your MS from that kind of clutter. They call it R.U.E. = Resist the Urge to Explain (by overwriting).

    “I repeat,” he repeated…

    The other kind of obvious faux pas in overwriting include such things as:He put his hat on his head.

    Well, of course he did. Where else would one put a hat? The rationale is that if something’s obvious (or usual/normal) from the action, don’t keep explaining it. He put on his hat, is sufficient. Now, if he put his hat on his FOOT, then yes, you’d write it as such because it’s not the norm.

    She fell down to the floor.
    No, she fell to the floor. One can’t fall up unless one’s in a Linnea Sinclair SF novel, dealing with zero-G. ::evil grin at the blatant self-promo::

    Keep in mind most writers make these mistakes first draft. It’s no sin to do so there. The key is to weed ’em out in the second draft. ~Linnea

  24. Deb said:

    Of course, if your character is talking nicey-nice, but his eyes are glaring thunderbolts at her, maybe she SHOULD state her guess that he’s honked off.

    Like most “don’ts”, depends on the context. I love writing scenes where people are talking in one vein and thinking (acting) in another. Just serves to toss a few more ingredients into the pasta!

  25. Dave said:

    I’m preparing a novel for submission, and one of the things I’m focusing on is removing just that. It’s amazing how much smoother things are reading after this pass.

  26. CM said:

    Anon at 7:56:

    There’s a significant difference between introspection and overtelling.

    Introspection is something closer to this:

    Jane had forgotten to pick up his dry-cleaning, sure, but that was no reason for John to threaten her with divorce.

    In other words, it does more than overtell; it moves the story along. (Not that my example is any good for that, but you can hopefully get the picture.) If all your introspection is doing is verifying something the reader already knows, it’s not useful.

    I think the rule is what Linnea Sinclair points out: Everything you don’t need should go. It’s not that you should never engage in telling (“It had been three weeks since her biopsy” is code for “time passed and it’s too boring to make it into the book”); it’s that you need to put the story before everything else. Unnecessary words? Delete ’em. Unnecessary sentences? Delete ’em. Unnecessary scenes? Delete them, too.

    This is all stuff we know and we’re told, but it’s hard work implementing it. And Kristin’s nice enough to remind us how to do it. 🙂

  27. OpenChannel said:

    Linnea – well my husband has a place he likes to put his hat, other than on his head…

    (but that’s a story for another day)

    I always say if what you’re writing isn’t news, it’s overtelling (or retelling). This happens in poetry, too, where the writer gives fabulous images to show a story, and then tells us what the poem is about at the end (sums it up).

    Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in the writer and she doesn’t believe her poem will be understood? She has to explain it in case we didn’t get it.

    This bugs me in films as well when you see something happen on screen and then a character tells you what you’ve just seen.

    Overtelling is part of explaining, but the idea of show vs. tell goes even deeper than that. Exposition is fine and necessary, but if you can show something instead, I think it’s much more interesting. I always ask myself if any exposition I’ve written can be incorporated into the actual story via action and dialogue instead.