Showing: Interior v. Exterior

broken-heartI trust, in your study of writing, formal or otherwise, you’ve heard the term “Show, don’t tell,” or some variation thereof. It’s a topic covered in nearly every worthwhile craft book, but few of these books cover the difference between interior and exterior showing. When we think of showing, we typically imagine lengthy prose that establishes setting or the physical appearance of a character.

However, we must remember that we need to show our characters’ internal states as well as their external. That is, we should devote equal time to a broken heart that we would a broken arm.

This can be problematic in several regards. The first is our inclination to overwrite (especially in first person) our characters inner feelings and thoughts. Too much time inside robs us of what we can be experiencing outside. One cannot replace the other. We should seek a balance between these two.

In first person, it seems to be the inclination of most writers to neglect the exterior for the interior. And, often, in third person distant, the opposite is true. The trick is finding the important details and including those. The other stock descriptions, tired clichés, and platitudes should be avoided at all costs (think “her heart broke like glass,” or “his tears flowed like rivers”).

If the description is one of the first three you come up with, it’s probably too easy. You may need to reach deeper to find a better description. And once you do, move on. Our goal is not to give a detailed list of descriptors, but to find the right one or two. When you find those, they will be stronger than any ten you may list.

Additionally, a word of caution about first person. When writing in first person, our first inclination is to spend too much time on the interior. Remember, what happens inside us is usually a response to an outside influence. Rather than telling us all about the depths of your characters depression (or elation, or excitement, or nervousness etc.), remember to tell us what happens on the outside that has caused those feelings.

When reviewing your work, ask yourself what your tendency is. Do you neglect exterior for the interior, or vice versa? Do you achieve a nice balance between the two?

11 Comments on Showing: Interior v. Exterior

  1. “The gleaming sword, singing its hymn as it swung down, sliced through the flesh as if it were butter. Nolak laughed looking at the disembodied arm, but his eyes were pale and lifeless. His expression bleak and distant. He glanced down and saw the same blade ,swung not forty-five seconds earlier, piercing his right shoulder. Befuddled, Nolak turned to see Winter weilding the sword in her small but firm hands…”

    A section from one of the battles that takes place in my book. I wrote it after looking over the printout of the PPT notes a few days ago. This is what I came up with.

  2. I’m guilty of writing too much of the exterior. Character thought isn’t my forte–it never has been. But to improve, one must write.
    So, are you always getting stuck in your character’s head? Turn his/her brain off for a second and look at what’s going on around the character. Are there waffles popping out of the ground like zombies? Have the recent storms affected the rest of the world? We see the world both in our heads and with our physical eyes. Try to bring that into your writing.
    Write well, write often.

  3. dina rodriguez | January 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply

    I think that is is a verry helpful blog. We realy should try and find a balance between showing and telling and interior and exterior. I usualy try to show both interior and exterior but sometimes it can be hard to fing that nice balance between the two.

  4. This blog is great for me because i sometimes don’t know the difference between the two and me story falls short because of that so i really like the help

  5. janet anderson | January 16, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply

    MR.Gansky bravo i felt like you know how i felt…. it helped me because i show things but at the same time i tell but i sometimes dont do both well thanks Ganksy this blog helped me understand more 🙂

  6. DeZerae Fraijo | January 16, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply

    I have gotten a bit better on balancing exterior and interior.
    I’ve actually been working on a first-person novel, and I notice that my earlier drafts of a chapter were a bit too interior.
    Now, I’m getting better. Ocassionally I do get stuck on how much I want to talk about what’s happening in my character’s mind, so I have to practically smack myself to stop that terrible habit.

  7. Summer Connell | January 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply

    I have a problem of writing what the character is feeling and why they are feeling that way. I guess ‘showing’ is a thing that I need to work on. I try to say what they are feeling in a very detailed manner, but in today’s blog it tells you how and why you need to show your ‘Interior and Exterior’ or at least one. I’m usually saying what’s in my character mind instead of telling more about what’s happening in the reality around them.

  8. This post really helps me to determine how much I should show versus how much I should tell. I we don’t show enough, then the reader isn’t able to imagine the same thing that the writer is. If we show too much, then the reader will have to read too much useless information that isn’t relevant to the plot.

  9. I haven’t been good with making the reader have an emotional connection with the character through my writing. Reading this has made a good point to me with showing the interior of the character, because I’m only good at expressing the character’s exterior. This article has helped me identify the exterior vs. the interior and will help me write about both of them more efficiently.

  10. JessicaRae Padilla | January 20, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply

    In my writings I have been good at telling the readers feeling and thoughts. but when I do its straight to the point. Reading this has made me realize showing is just as important and telling, as well as exterior and interior are an important additive to a piece of writing. This article has helped me understand the differences and importance that I can include within my writings.

  11. In my writings i have lacked showing the readers rather than telling, making my story’s lengthy and at some points very redundant. So this blog post helped me, work on my showing rather than the over used telling. I would like to work on my showing to develop my characters in a memorable way.

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