Sounds a little strange, isn’t it? Still, some of you who’ve been watching my LJ may remember that little post I made some time ago about letting your readers do your describing for you. Since I’m a little tired of Bitterwood (and my brain needs a little time to recover) I thought I’d expound a little on the concepts I pointed out therein.

You’ve probably been told by whoever it is that inducted you into writing to “show, don’t tell”. While this, like all other “rules” of writing, is more of a guideline than anything else (since it’s like drawing. If you can make it look good, it doesn’t matter what you do), it’s still there for a reason, and it’s a very good reason indeed—enough for it to hold most of the time. Showing tends to grant better immersion and character empathy for the reader, and tends to be more involved and open-ended (within the limits set by the prose) for the reader’s imagination to take over. Still, this isn’t a showing vs. telling discussion, and I’m not going to let it be one, so there.

So far, I’ve encountered while both reading and writing four ways of getting across information to the reader that will help fill in and colour the details of your characters to the reader. This list probably isn’t exhaustive—I’m not going to claim that—but it does cover the more common ways of getting description across. Some methods may combine one or more of the following, and it’s important to know when to use what to maximum effect.

Note that these are my personal terms for these methods, and are by no means “official” or anything on those lines.

1. Infodumping
2. Breaking up and hiding
3. Direct inference
4. Imaginative inference


Infodumping’s probably the most common method that authors use in speculative fiction on order to get across how something looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds, although the most commonly appealed-to sense is of course, sight. This may have had its roots in that humans are primarily very visual creatures, but most writers are indeed aware that good description (for a relative value of good) should appeal to all the five senses and at least try to cater to sound, and perhaps smell. Infodumping depends highly on “telling”—directly stating how something is, and I believe that such things work for “neutral” statements—things like a character’s height, eye colour, the fact that the lilies are blooming, that the cloud in the sky looks like a bird, so on and so forth. “Loaded” statements—things which I’m suppose to judge the characters on, especially on moral attributes such as kindness, valour, honesty—are better off shown and left to the reader’s imagination, and this post isn’t on them anyways.

The main problem of infodumping, of course, is that it brings the flow of the plot and prose to a screeching halt, stopping all action while the author takes utter care in describing the wonderful rustic countryside, the incoming new character from a foreign land, or perhaps the new bustling city. Everyone else takes a break while the Wise Old Mentor carefully explains to the Young Dunderheaded Hero about the Scepter of the Seven Seas or the Ruby of Rude Rowdiness of what-have-you, and the reader’s eyes glaze over, because frankly, he or she couldn’t give a damn because you, as the author,didn’t give them reason to.

It’s also very hard to do anything else other that flat out information-relaying with an infodump, since these by definition are huge blocks of exposition—often written in third-person-omniscient, to make the problem worse.

True enough, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid an infodump. Perhaps one must know why werewolves are bad, or why the violet-eyed men of the sea are impervious to all edged weapons. Perhaps the description of the countryside will figure into the chase scene across said countryside in the next chapter, or maybe the heroine will take the string of beads off that traditional dress shop and use them as a makeshift garrote. Still, it’s imperative that the infodump be kept as short as possible, and as always, the author should try to split it up if possible and stuff it discreetly into the prose (which is point two.)

Infodumping isn’t completely bad—it does have its virtues in that it’s direct, to the point, and there’s no chance of misinterpretation or ambiguity. The problem is that these virtues are as equally mirrored by the method in point two, breaking up and hiding, and I personally feel point two does a better job of direct telling without the cons of infodumping. However, if you’re willing to take the hit because it is so essential that your character has violet eyes, that they play such an important role in the plot that you’re afraid the reader will miss this detail and want to draw all the attention you want to it—fine. Just please, make sure you’ve given your readers a reason to care about the character, or they’ll just skim over the description and not notice that yes, your character has violet eyes.

Breaking up and hiding

Breaking up and hiding is also very commonly used by authors in the genre, and is what it says on the label—the pertinent exposition is broken up into chunks and scattered across the prose. The degree, scope, and forms of breaking up and hiding are very wide and diverse; for example, it may be hidden in a dialogue tag:

“Blah blah blah,” she said, toying with her golden hair.

The above is a rather obtrusive example, but still much better than the traditional infodump. Dialogue is also used to hide exposition:

“And he ran all the way here like an Ankaran mare!”


“Yes! That fast!”

From here, we can see that an Ankaran mare is supposed to move fast, and the fact is disguised in a simile that’s being said in dialogue. This one’s better-disguised than the previous example, but of course, circumstances dictate all—if the character in question is not used to fidgeting or using similes in speech, there’s going to be a bit of incongruity and the disguise is going to be lost.

Still, I personally favour this method for getting across information that needs to be explicitly stated, like how Victor has an underbite or how the spaghetti monsters from the planet Zog have three nostrils. Done right, it can blend seamlessly and naturally into the prose, and yet retain all of the clarity and directness which infodumping has. It’s also much easier to do more than one thing with breaking up and hiding (naturally, since you’re trying to hide the exposition in something else):

Victor beamed. “She’s got her daddy’s underbite.”

This snippet does two things: firstly, it establishes a physical attribute of two characters, and implies how one of them feels about this. Of course, knowing further that this is Victor talking about his daughter, it further implies more things about their relationship, about how Victor feels about physical resemblance between family members, how underbites are viewed, and more, if you’re willing to give it a bit of a stretch. Try to imagine how I’d have done this in a traditional infodump. Hard, isn’t it?

Direct inference

Now we’re moving into showing territory. Direct inference usually comes from a character’s actions, and while it’s the primary way of showing “loaded” attributes, I’ve already stated I’m not going to go there. The difference between direct inference and hiding is that nowhere is it stated that character A has X physical attribute. An example would be a character having to duck under a doorway (of course, this wouldn’t apply in, say, a human entering a hobbit’s home). Nowhere is it mentioned that the character is tall, but the reader can infer that the character is tall—otherwise, why would he need to duck under the doorway in order to enter?

Of course, this can be a problem if what’s inferred clashes with any preconceived notions about the character the reader has brought in, or god forbid, your own explicit description. You’ve heard me complain recently about how Metron using a cane in Bitterwood was absolutely jarring, because the inference (biped) clashed with the preconceived notion of standard fantasy dragons (quadruped) and that there was no hint or suggestion prior to that scene that it wasn’t the case. Although to be fair, this isn’t the fault of the method itself—there simply wasn’t enough setup prior to the scene, and if it’d been mentioned there and then that been biped I would have been thrown out of the prose as well. (Although probably not as violently)

Another potential problem with direct inference is that thanks to our good old social theory of symbolic interactionism, what you intend the reader to infer from a certain action, possession, or whatnot may have a very different effect from what you intended. To take some “loaded” examples, since they’re more common, you’re all familiar with Paolini and his hippie vegan atheist elves, and how he meant them to be superior to everyone else. We know better; it just makes them look stupid, deluded and pretentious. Of course, this is an extreme case. You’re also familiar with Twilight and how Edward stalking Bella is supposed to be reflective of his love for her, but to us it just makes him appear creepy and obsessed.

Now let’s try to translate this to physical attributes. Someone who eats slowly might be neat, or he might have a weak jaw, or cavities, or be in the mind to enjoy his meal, or might not have a very wide mouth, or…you get the idea. It’s probably good in such ambiguous situations to back up direct inference with a little breaking up and hiding of telling to get rid of ambiguity—unless that’s what you’re aiming for.

Imaginative inference

This is where the deliciousness sets in. Imaginative inference, as I see it, is where there is near-to-none description of the characters in question and the reader is guided by the author in constructing his or her own personalised vision of the characters through said characters’ actions, dialogue, thoughts, and so forth. Since it’s often part of the reader’s imagination, imaginative inference in action is often hard to spot, but a very good example of this would be Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw—a parody of the Victorian Novel. Save for the most important traits, the characters are almost never described, and the author guides the reader through the use of tropes of the Victorian Novel to establish settings, characters, and backgrounds.

In short, it’s a big game of “let your imagination and knowledge fill in the blanks”.

The advantages are obvious—there’s no jarring or breaking of the action to speak of, since there’s no explicit description at all. The reader is actively engaged in the process of forming the characters, and there’s not much reason to be bored. A bit of shameless plugging here, but I’ll just include a small snippet from the beginning of Morally Ambiguous to illustrate my point:

Nodammo had dropped the first sugar cube in her tea when the hero alarm went off.

“And we haven’t even opened for the day,” she said before she stirred in another sugar cube and watched it dissolve, ignoring the bells that rang throughout the tower. “Agnurlin, would you be so kind as to check whether the village children have been playing with the heroism detectors again? I’ve had it with the false alarms.”

“Will Mistress be wanting the usual this morning?” A rather tall and yellowed skeleton stood by the dining table, and with a practiced half-bow set down a tea-tray and a platter of honey-lined fruit sandwiches. Nodammo wondered once again how her butler managed to keep his waistcoat starched and spotless, then reminded herself she had more important things at hand.

“Yes, thank you. Agnurlin, would you mind hurrying up? Can’t be too careful with heroes turning up around these parts of late.”

“My apologies, Mistress.” Agnurlin crossed the dining hall to the wide balcony in a very butler-like gait, the tap-tapping of his feet on the masonry creating echoes in the dining hall’s corners. Once he was out of sight, Nodammo made short work of her tea and considered consequences. The last three alarms had been duds, two of them caused by straying children and another by a flying cow, but it never hurt to be vigilant.

After all, it’d been complacency that’d killed her grandfather.

“What do you think the hero alarm means, Victor?” she asked between sips of her tea. “Has the Company finally started making inroads here?”

The black dragon curled by the enormous fireplace stirred; one draconic eye opened, fixed itself on Nodammo, and shut again. “I hate hero alarms, especially when they go off during breakfast.”

“You hate everything, Victor!”

“Too much noise, Boss. Couldn’t you at least set them to play some soothing music instead of this din? Greendowald’s Fifth Symphony might be a good choice.”


The black dragon reached out, speared a sandwich on a claw tip and dropped it daintily on his tongue. “Just make it stop. I hate the way it drones on.”

“Fine.” Nodammo waved a hand, and the deafening ringing stopped. “Better now?”

“Very much so. We’ve a long day ahead; no point starting it in a downdraft. Now would you be so kind as to hand over the lemon crackers? Not very filling, but that’s biscuits for you.”

Between sorceress and dragon, the lemon crackers and fruit sandwiches steadily disappeared till only crumbs remained.

“What’s taking Agnurlin so l—eeyagh!” A stray strawberry slice bounced off the front of Nodammo’s dress and landed on the floor. “Agnurlin, I am not my mother! I know she hasn’t been in retirement for that long, but please don’t do that!”

Agnurlin contrived to look innocent, despite having no facial muscles, and pulled a spyglass out from his waistcoat. “Mistress, you might want to see this. Heroic activity has been detected in the direction of the Generic Little Village.”

“You mean the one with a capital ‘G’, ‘L’ and ‘V’?”

“The very one, Mistress.”

“Well, no point in dragging the matter out. The best hero is one where you’ve cleared up the bloodstains before lunch.” Without another word, Nodammo took the spyglass from Agnurlin, strode out on the balcony, and put the spyglass to her eye.

“Oh,” she said at last. “Botheration.”

What do you think Nodammo looks like? What would someone who had a butler, listened to classical music, drank tea from teacups and have small fruit sandwiches and lemon crackers, so on and so forth look like? Here I’m trying to draw on the “cultured” stereotype that many people are aware of, and by having Nodammo act in such a manner and people recognize the stereotype, they immediately draw up the image of such a person associated with the stereotype. It seems to have worked; most of my beta readers, after having gone through a few chapters, reported they got the impression of Nodammo as a strict, English-esque young lady.

For a lark, let’s take Victor out for a two-snippet spin:

“I hate little villages.”

“Now, there’s no need to keep up appearances here, Victor,” Agnurlin shouted over the shrieking wind. “We’re going into the village to get some white lettuce, check whether the hero has arrived yet, and that’s it. Why don’t you land in that grassy patch over there?”

“I hate white lettuce.”

“But white lettuce is good for you. Mistress says it’s very cleansing for one’s insides, even for dragons. Cooked in soup, the nutritive and alchemical value increases—”

“I hate soup.”


Nodammo hadn’t remembered Victor’s teeth being so sharp.

“Boss, I understand what you’re getting at and you have my interests in mind, but please, please don’t ever fucking pull rank on me again, because I HATE PEOPLE PULLING RANK ON ME. I call you ‘Boss’. That means I’m an employee, and that entails the happy fact that I can quit any time I like if you start treating me like a goddamn pet. It’s all there in your granddaddy’s contract, ‘kay? Very legal. Very proper.”

General thuggishness, taciturn unless angered, has a certain sense of self-worth—again, it’s not too hard to guess what Victor looks like, or at least, form an impression of him. Of course, there isn’t much to go on for either character—which is one of the problems of imaginative inference—forming an accurate depiction of a character is going to take a long time, since the character(s) will need to be portrayed in a variety of situations—which can be problematic if you need to establish an important physical trait early on or in a snap. As always with inference, too, there’s the risk of the reader getting the wrong idea and going off on the wrong tangent; one of my beta readers suggested that imaginative inference worked better for parodies because readers are expected to be aware of the tropes and conventions, and react accordingly, and that there’s less chance of misinterpretation.

Furthermore, imaginative inference isn’t very good for details, and should thus be supplemented with breaking up and hiding for best effect, which should also give the more visual readers something on which to anchor their imaginations on (hence dealing with the problem of too little description).


Personally, I prefer having to use mostly imaginative inference coupled with break down and hide for drawing my characters, but that’s just me writing up something I’d read. Again, everything has its time and purpose, and balancing the various methods’ strengths to cover their weaknesses is a skill every writer should have.

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  1. Sing on 22 April 2009, 03:26 said:

    :] Fantastic article. Really. Extremely informative and filled with the small things that can really make a difference in writing. Especially the imaginative inference. It’s something I’ve been subconsciously striving for in my writing, but have never nailed into a certain “style” or however you call it. Being able to understand it fully just helps me in being able to apply it.

    Thanks so much for this article. :D

  2. OverlordDan on 22 April 2009, 07:02 said:

    Once again, superb article (I hope I’m not being redundant)! I love when little nuggets of info are stashed in the text, it lets you pick up more about the character on your next read through that you might have missed, and get a greater understanding of why they do what they do.

  3. james brown on 22 April 2009, 07:55 said:

    Dude, Sweet…

  4. Samuel on 22 April 2009, 11:35 said:

    You bloody rule…

    (As in, I liked it)

  5. Golcondio on 22 April 2009, 11:50 said:

    I totally agree, very nicely done!

    Where can I read more of your writings? Googling “morally ambiguous” is a bit too vague :)

  6. SlyShy on 22 April 2009, 11:58 said:

    Generally one would Google the name of the author. ;)

  7. swenson on 22 April 2009, 12:55 said:

    A great article! I’d agree with your breakdown of the four basic types of description- as well as your superb examples. My biggest problem with description is that I tend to forget it, because I have images firmly stuck in my head and forget that the readers don’t! But this means when I try to go back and put description in, it can break up the flow. You can get really into a scene and it’s just getting going… when it all comes to a screeching halt to describe everybody. So this article is a handy reminder to me, thanks for it!

  8. Luin Kaimelar on 22 April 2009, 13:29 said:

    So helpful! I’ve been trying to find ways to get around my info-dumps for ages. This helps me so much. Thanks!

  9. Puppet on 22 April 2009, 17:02 said:

    Brilliant. Maybe now I will be able to describe the character (like you said) without completely stopping the story.

  10. Puppet on 22 April 2009, 17:09 said:


  11. Puppet on 22 April 2009, 17:12 said:

    That’s weird, for some reason I can’t see my posts, and it posted twice.

  12. Artimaeus on 22 April 2009, 20:16 said:

    Excellent article. We need a few more of these :)

  13. Snow White Queen on 22 April 2009, 21:30 said:

    This is great and informative!

    By the way, I really liked Morally Ambiguous. Would you mind posting it here or something? Because I am genuinely interested in what happens.

  14. falconempress on 23 April 2009, 00:22 said:

    interesting insights. this is a great article:)

  15. lccorp2 on 23 April 2009, 02:14 said:


    The first step is to make sure each and every one of your major characters has a very clear character “voice”. Once that’s done, you could technically do away with dialogue tags, since it would be obvious from the dialogue who is speaking.

    The next step would be to do the equivalent for your characters’ actions and attitudes. Once that’s done, keep in mind your target audience and their likely interpretation of the traits, as well as the associated stereotypes, and take it from there.

  16. Kevin on 23 April 2009, 12:25 said:

    Great article. The sorts of things many unpublished amateurs try to grasp around for intuitively, you’ve laid out here quite well.

  17. Jerk on 23 April 2009, 12:38 said:

    Good job at taking it all apart and analyzing it mechanically, but I think it’s just as important to put it all together and analyze everything holistically. Each choice you make effects how people will both think about and feel your writing. If you boil it all down to mechanics, then some writers here might think its possible to write good stories from thought alone. You also have to think about story dynamics, and also be able to “feel” out your prose and meaning.

    I think every narrative element can be set into two categories: either you are explaining something to the reader, or you are leaving it to the reader to think about what you just said. Expressive or Interpretive. I think the other two you stated fall into one of those two branches. Instead of breaking them into four specific types, it might have been beneficial to treat them as two general types.

    To clarify, even describing something is not quite “showing”. You are still telling the reader what to think about with words. You are just not telling them WHAT to think about what they think about, or what to feel. However, with expressive words, you are expressing an idea, and giving guidance to the reader as how to interpret a passage, and also directing feelings.

    It sometimes doesn’t matter how many visual images or “effects” you have, a certain expressive word is needed to get the tone and feeling down right. You could describe a dragon objectively, and how terrible his eyes, face, scales, size is—how overwhelming. But by using expressive language can you get the reader to feel what you mean.

    That is to say, maybe you can very well leave description to action and interpretation, but sometimes what needs to be described is just as important than what is going on.

    Either way, good article.

  18. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 21 May 2009, 08:00 said:


  19. SMARTALIENQT on 23 May 2009, 22:16 said:

    This will definitely help me with my writing – I’m always trying not to infodump, and sometimes fail in a very human way. Thanks for this article!