Tuesday, August 28, 2012

More Lessons from LA SCBWI - Confident Writing

While attending the LA SCBWI there was one theme that continued to percolate for me – confident writing.

I’m not talking about confidence in your actual writing ability (although every writer needs to be confident in their story telling craft to be successful.) I’m talking about having confidence in your reader, and letting that trust shine through by what you don’t say in your story.

How often as a writer do you feel the need to explain something to the reader? Perhaps it’s an emotion you want to share with the reader, so you tell them how your character is feeling. Or maybe there’s a recurring theme you want your book to have, so you tell it to the reader. Several times. Because you really want to make sure they get it.
writing with confidence

Often times it’s referred to as telling, but it’s also a perfect example of a writer that doesn’t trust that their reader will figure things out on their own.

A confident writer believes in their reader. Confident writers trust that if they paint the details, the reader will be able to see the whole picture.

Take The Golden Compass as an example. In the first few chapters we are introduced to Lyra – a curious little girl. But Philip Pullman never actually says “Lyra is a curious little girl” so how do we know she’s curious? We know because he shows us.

In the first scene we see Lyra snooping around the dining and retiring rooms of her school. It’s in her simple actions that we start to uncover Lyra’s curious nature, not in the explicit words Pullman uses. She flicks a glass. She studies the table setting. She explores her surroundings. She eavesdrops. These are all actions that demonstrate curiosity without once ever using adjectives associated with the word curious.

Pullman very easily could have used a dialogue tag to explicitly tell readers about Lyra’s nature:

“What d’you think they talk about?” she whispered curiously.

But he never does this, because he never needs to. He has confidence that his reader will pick up on her character traits through her actions.

writing with confidence
Another fantastic example of confident writing can be seen in the first chapter of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins never expressly tells us that Katniss is a survivor, or that she feels responsible for taking care of her family. Instead, she shows us Katniss’ hardened persona when she describes her reaction to the cat. What kind of person wants to drown a kitten so they will have one less mouth to feed? What kind of person spares a kitten’s life because her sister begs her not to drown it? It is through these actions and reactions that we come to see who Katniss is as a person, not simply through adjectives, adverbs and explicit explanations.

The next time you’re reading through your manuscript, ask yourself – what am I explicitly telling the reader that they can figure out on their own? Is there a way I can showcase that emotion or character trait through actions and reactions versus explanation? Are there explanations I can take out that won't take away from the story?  If so, you may be over-telling.

Go back and reread the first chapter of your favorite books with an eye for confident writing. The more you can develop an eye for what works in other stories, the more you'll be able to apply those tactics to your own writing.

Most importantly, have faith in your reader. Give them a beautiful story, and trust that they will be able to read between the lines. (Pun intended!)

Happy writing!


  1. I catch these sometimes in my own writing. But not always, so that's why it's good to have beta readers.

  2. Agree completely - Beta readers have been a huge help for me in identifying places where I'm over telling or where I need more characterization through action/reaction. Couldn't do it without them!

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