Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part I — Narrative

Unless you’re a complete stranger to writing advice, you’ve probably heard the term “white room syndrome.” It’s when a writer fails to provide enough description of the setting, meaning the characters could reasonably be in a completely featureless room.

I’m don’t intend to tackle that problem directly–there are loads of other bloggers who have written on the subject and how to correct it. Some advise doing your best to engage all five senses. Others say to ask each scene the 5 “W’s”–who, what, when, where, and why. Both are solid approaches.

But I’m taking a step back from that to look at the larger picture: underwriting.

Not every writer is an underwriter. Beginners often overwrite, as they don’t yet have a feel for what’s important to the story and what’s not. Pantsers (aka, discovery writers) may do the same thing more deliberately, putting down all of their ideas because they’re working out the story as they go, so they too don’t know what is important yet. (Though they’re generally more aware that not everything will be by the end.) And anyone pounding out word count for productivity during NaNoWriMo is going to try to overwrite on purpose, to cut later when/if they revisit the story.

But not every writer is an overwriter, either; and strangely enough, you can be both. A common framework for considering writing is the trinity of dialogue, action, and narrative. If you prioritize one of these aspects and neglect another, you can be both an over- and underwriter.

Any one of those aspects might be the one neglected, but I’m going to look first at narrative. In this context, that’s a catch-all term for anything that isn’t dialogue or action: description, internal monologue, world-building/exposition that doesn’t come via dialogue, philosophical rantings…literally anything.

So white room syndrome is an excellent example of one way underwriting narrative can manifest, and if that’s something you struggle with, Let’s look at some others:

  • Undefined characters: The narrator or protagonist might not be described or identified soon enough, allowing the reader to form a concept of them which might be directly contradicted later. Or, like white rooms, multiple characters, especially when introduced quickly or in groups, might suffer “talking heads” syndrome, where they’re basically names with no bodies for a reader to picture. It’s not great to interrupt the flow of a scene to spend a paragraph or more detailing each character, but neither is leaving them as near-total blank spaces. Ask yourself: have I given each character in this scene enough description, soon enough, for the reader to imagine them with reasonable accuracy? Which details are important and convey the most about them? Am I introducing too many characters at once and slowing down the pace? Is there any way I can describe these characters as a group now and leave more individual detail for later, when it becomes necessary?
  • Internal monologue: I know some readers hate this device, but it’s so common most will expect at least some time spent in a character’s head, especially in first person POV. Even in third person, unless your external POV is meant to be a distant one, you would probably benefit from letting the characters share their thoughts directly with the reader from time to time. Ask yourself: at what points in the scene could I add interest by showing internal monologue? Where does the story need to pause and reflect on something, or show additional information that can’t come from another source? When would peeking inside a character’s head have the most emotional impact?
  • Exposition/world-building: Getting this particular element balanced is often the bane of a writer’s editing process. Too much and the story feels heavy and plodding; too little can leave your readers woefully confused. A lot is going to depend on the subject you’re tackling, be it magic in a fantasy world or the tragic backstory of your contemporary romance hero, but there are still general questions that are useful for most situations. Ask yourself: have I given my readers all the information necessary for this scene to make sense, but no more? Am I having one character tell another something they would already know, for the sake of passing that information to the reader? Do they need this information now, or would it have been more relevant sooner (or later)?
  • Everything else: I mentioned “philosophical rantings” above mostly as a joke, though I’ve read some books in the past that would actually apply to. Literature, especially when it prioritizes “theme” above character or plot, can contain passages that feel a step removed from the story, whether by commenting on the state of the world or a character’s relationships or whatever. Classic science fiction sometimes does the same in its efforts to examine humanity through an alternate lens. And many books across genres have been guilty of standing a character on a soapbox to have them espouse the author’s views on something, in a way that feels isolated from the rest of the text. I’m not saying don’t do this ever, because all tools have their place in writing, but I am saying do question when and how you step back from the story to make an external point about something. Ask yourself: is this truly necessary to state outright? Is there a way I can incorporate this more naturally or with more subtlety? Can I break this into smaller pieces rather than concentrating it in one place? Should a character be saying these things instead of laying it out in narrative, or would that detract from the message?

Any one of these problems can be addressed in more depth through other sources, and I hope you’ll do that, if my overview has helped you diagnose your weak spots. I don’t claim to have examined every possible issue, only the ones I’ve found most common, both in my reading and in discussion with other writers.

I have plans to write similar overviews for dialogue and action as well, though I don’t have a timeline for them yet. Once they’re all done, I’ll be sure to interlink them for maximum usefulness.

Until then, I hope this has been helpful!

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