I 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?