Instead of explaining this whole practice, I'll rather give an example. In a scene in my book, there is this character. This character is pompous and arrogant. I describe their gait shortly after their introduction, where using "pompous" would've been very informative (and concise). Instead, I describe their whole pompousness and arrogance through the collection of input they provide to the story.

Here is their introduction:

“It’s so sad seeing someone waste their lives in front of you. You’re just sitting there high out of your mind and looking blankly at a map, in the middle of class. Get a grip for fuck's sake,” a creaky voice buzzed into Alfie’s temple. He turned and saw Jenna. “Fuck off.” He turned back to his map and sighed. I’m not even high.

The bells rang and the school day was officially over. Most of the pupils were already on their way out as the riddling racket of the bells struck, whilst others were midway in the process of packing their books away. Alfie was, surprisingly, still at his desk, leaning on his chair with his arms behind his head. He was watching Jenna collectedly approach the teacher with whatever topic she was going to address. Alfie swore she walked up to the teacher's desk so often the outer lines of desks were shaped by her gait down the classroom.

Here is a collection of input on Jenna's personality, provided by both Jenna and Alfie. The individual pieces of input don't necessarily mean either arrogance or pompousness on their own, but it is all of them combined that hopefully shows the reader this. Walking collectedly doesn't need to mean you're pompous, but in the context, the reader is supposed to assume their outside "collectedness" is a product of that pompousness, as that makes sense with the context. Of course, it's not science, nothing is certain, it's all just to give the reader a feel of the character.

But doing it by showing the character feels a bit risky to me, sometimes. I am scared of too much ambiguity, leaving the character feeling empty, instead of invoking the reader with a feel of their personality. So, as I write, it think writing;

He was watching Jenna pompously approach...

This way, there is no ambiguity. My point comes across, undoubtedly and concisely. Because that's what it's about. Summarizing a part of her personality with one, concise word; pompous. But the problem her is that I'd be summarizing it. Telling, instead of showing. And that again leaves the characters feeling empty. At least, that's my understanding of it. So, which one is it? Should I use concise words to quickly get my points across, or should I take longer routes of giving the reader a feel of my points? Or is there some middle way?

  • 1
    Did you really mean to write "catheter?" That doesn't sound like anything you'd find in a typical classroom.
    – JRE
    Dec 29, 2019 at 12:14
  • 1
    sitting their high out → sitting there high out. for fuck sakes → for fuck’s sake.
    – user137369
    Dec 29, 2019 at 13:29
  • 2
    @JRE I translated from my own language, where the area behind the teacher's desk is called "kateteret", which I now know is also a medical tube designed to be inserted into a specific organ, the definition it translated when I searched for it. You learn as long as you live I guess. A bit of a funny mistake too.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 29, 2019 at 19:03
  • 1
    @user137369 thanks for notifying me of the typos.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 29, 2019 at 19:03

3 Answers 3


Sorry, I did not get "pompous" out of the description; nor do I know how one "pompously" approaches a desk without looking comical.

You have already had your MC express a thought to the reader. Why not let Alfie just think it?

He turned and saw Jenna. “Fuck off.” Such a pompous twit.
He turned back to his map and sighed. I’m not even high.

I fail to understand how "the outer lines of desks" can be shaped by somebody's gait; is she bumping into them? Why would a "collected" person have any influence on the desks? She wouldn't touch them.

Is she so obese the aisle isn't wide enough? Obesity or a drunken walking style doesn't fit with the word "pompous" or "collectedly".

  • 1
    I think that the 'outer lines' is a reference to the layout of the desks accommodating her walk, but this is a guess.
    – shayaan
    Dec 29, 2019 at 11:38
  • @Shayaan That's my guess, I just don't understand how a "pompous" or "collected" walk demands any different layout of desks than would be a normal straight line. A formal style of walk would be in a straight line and deliberate, I should think. Not weaving from side to side, or dancing down the aisle, or a Monty Python Silly Walk.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 29, 2019 at 12:10
  • @Shayaan you and Amadeus are correct in your guess, and the problem you raised with this description is relevant (flobw). With "collected" I was talking about her face, posture, head and gaze, her whole mien. But, being a pompous twit, she does take space and will step so as to create some inconvenience for those around her, making it so that the desks accommodate her walk down the classroom. I mean, I get your concern if we're talking about a big classroom, but if it's quite small with desks all crammed together, then it isn't weird for an often walker to put their mark on their alignment.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 29, 2019 at 19:08
  • It is comical when someone walks pompously, and that is exactly the intent. Not comical as in the reader's supposed to laugh, more like they're supposed to "look down" on Jenna for her pompousness and the manifestation of that. But if you didn't get that out of the words I wrote, then that means I didn't communicate this idea well enough. I will try to write his thoughts saying "pompous twit" (exactly the way he'd think it btw:) ), but I'd like to know what the ramifications of this is instead of trying to purely show it? Perhaps this approach is the middle way?
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 29, 2019 at 19:15
  • Yes, I'd say having him think it is the middle way. As for the description of it, same thing: Have him notice what she is doing and why, with his own feelings about that: Maybe he finds it funny because she is ludicrous, maybe he's irritated by her, maybe he feels sorry for her having to assert her self-importance. For an MC where the reader knows his thoughts, many things are more easily accomplished by showing how he feels or what he thinks. The scene filtered through his impressions lets him make the connections, it is easier for them to interpret than a raw description without those links.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 29, 2019 at 20:52

I didn't get very far, sorry. You appear to be doing the opposite of what you set out to achieve.

Is it bad writing?

The first paragraph is confusing and overly wordy.
- Who said what? (formatting issues).
- You use the word 'turned' in consecutive actions.
- POV is not maintained.

Here's an example of a similar event: boy remains in a classroom at the end of the day (lengthy).

Oliver’s thoughts intensified. He leaned his cheek on the palm of his right hand, and began to let fantasy overtake his mind. Maria was just so . . . "Shit," he mumbled, quickly crossing his legs. It was happening again, the third time today, twice during the maths class, and now this. His lack of control was no longer restricted to his thoughts. He swiftly moved his folder onto his lap to cover his embarrassment. Moving only his eyes Oliver looked around to see if anybody noticed. His eyes caught the clock, the figure 15.59 loomed large. Oh shit! Bollocks! Why did it have to happen now? Think of something else, anything else. Think of maggots, or watching cricket, or golf, or my granny on the toilet . . .

CLICK! - The digit changed the hour. Oliver's entire life flashed before him.

KERIINNGG!! - The bells rang louder than ever before. The ringing in his ears continued long after the bell had stopped, and the potential for ridicule made his cheeks flush and his ears burn.

STAMPEDE!!! - The other students charged out of the classroom.

Twenty-five teenagers fighting to get through a doorway little more than a metre wide, they’d never notice his problem. Oliver was saved! He remained seated at his desk, doing is very best impression of anonymity. Revisiting the theory held by almost every infant, Oliver covered his eyes in the belief; if you can't see them' they can't see you. He wouldn't stand up, not yet, he couldn't. Nothing in this world could be more embarrassing than this moment, or so he thought. Maria and her friends had not yet left the class room. The Queen of Awesomeness and her elite entourage loitered at the back of the mob, waiting patiently to make their exit. Ten more seconds and they’d be gone. Everything would be okay. Oliver just needed to hold his nerve. Don’t look at her. Don’t think about her. But curiosity took him . . . One last look to check if she was out of the door yet. What harm could it possibly do?

Maria Matiz stopped in the doorway, turned, and caught his eye. Time slowed. Her lips formed the shape of seduction as she brought her palm up to her face, before extending her hand and blowing him a kiss.

He intended to return the smile but instead he grimaced, clenching his teeth. Shit. That, had never ever happened before.

  • In this piece the POV is obviously sympathetic to Oliver. We are being made aware of his thoughts in response to the developing situation. It is fairly obvious what is happening: (1) He has a crush on Maria. (2) He can't stand up because he has an erection. (3) By blowing him a kiss she has inadvertently popped the champagne cork.

  • Crush / Erection / Ejaculation - all very obvious. But this is how we "show don't tell", none of these facts are in evidence. These conclusions are made by the reader. Even the fact that it's the end of the school day is not mentioned. The facts are: 4:00 + Ringing bells + Students rushing to leave = ?

Finally, compare two excerpts, count the frequency of the verb 'to be' (was, were).

  • I can see how you were perhaps confused by who said what. I doubt this is a problem for a reader having the full context as the "fuck off" as a reply to Jenna's comment is quite in-character for Alfie, and I believe it is also standard for the next line of dialogue belongs to a different character. The preceding "He turned and saw Jenna" paints the way of such an understanding. As for maintaining the POV, I don't understand how I didn't do that, could you explain? The echo of "turned" is noted ;). As for my main concern; could you elaborate more on how my writing had the opposite effect?
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 13, 2020 at 19:14

I think showing instead of telling can be good because if let's your reader know that you respect their intelligence to put two and two together, but I think telling can also be good if there is no way to show what you're trying to show.

  • Is "inelegance" the word you wanted to use there? It doesn't look right to me.
    – F1Krazy
    Dec 30, 2019 at 19:16
  • 2
    Ah crap. No, I meant to put intelligence, but for some reason my mind had me do that instead. I'll fix it.
    – Edgy Weeb
    Dec 30, 2019 at 19:19

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