Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Please welcome our Guest Nancy Mehl

Settings, Backstory and Descriptions

One of the toughest things for writers to handle well has to do with telling readers about settings, explaining backstory, and communicating personal descriptions. Many times, long passages of narration (exposition) are used to tackle this issue, but narration will actually slow down your story. I encourage writers, whenever possible, to use dialogue to accomplish these goals.

Let’s look at two ways of writing the same scene. In one example I’ll use exposition to describe the setting.

Sarah gazed around the room. The walls were painted an awful shade of green, and the floors were covered with chipped, pink linoleum. She pulled out a chair from one of the broken tables and inspected it carefully. Deciding it was clean enough to risk sitting on, she carefully lowered herself onto the cracked plastic. Bringing the abandoned café back to life would take more work than she was willing to do alone. If the Breadbasket Café ever welcomed customers again, Roger would have to roll up his sleeves and pitch in. Years ago, the Breadbasket had been the most successful business in the small town of Dunfield. But that was a long, long time ago. Sarah ran a finger down the middle of the dusty wooden table. Maybe this was a lost cause.

Now, let’s do the same thing with dialogue:

                “Wow. I had no idea this place was such a mess,” Sarah said, gazing around.
                “The Breadbasket closed a long time ago, Sarah.” Roger frowned at her. “What did you expect?”
                She shook her head. “I don’t know. But not this.”
                “The whole place needs to be redone. This awful green paint on the walls reminds me of mold.”
                Sarah grinned. “But it looks so good with the pink floor.”
                Roger didn’t smile. “We’d have to pull all of the linoleum up. Even if the color wasn’t disgusting, it’s badly chipped.”
                Sarah pulled out a chair and after inspecting it, sat down gingerly on the cracked plastic seat. “Look, this place used to be the most popular business in town. If we work hard, we can bring it back.”
                Roger grunted and sat down on the other side of the dusty wooden table. “Dunfield has a population of six hundred people. Most of them farmers who live out of town. I’m afraid you’ll never get enough customers to make all the effort worthwhile.”
                She looked at Roger through narrowed eyes. “But I want this.”
                Roger stared back at her. “I don’t.”

Through dialogue, we’ve brought two characters into the scene, and almost all the exposition detailing the setting has been replaced with dialogue. The backstory about the café and the town of Dunfield was also revealed through dialogue. I also used Roger, a secondary character, to create conflict for Sarah. We know that Sarah needs Roger’s help, but Roger isn’t in agreement. The second example is much more active and interesting than the first. When you need to share setting, descriptions, back story or conflict, use dialogue!

Now, what about describing your characters? Painting pictures of your characters can be much more interesting if you allow another character to do it instead of using narrative passages. Here’s an example:

Instead of:

Sarah had dark red hair, green eyes, and a dimple in her chin.

How about:

“I wish I looked like you,” Tonya said as Sarah stood in front of the mirror on her dresser, combing her hair.
                Sarah laughed. “Don’t be silly. You have gorgeous blond hair and beautiful blue eyes. Why would you want to look like me?”
                Tonya fell back on Sarah’s bed and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t know anything, do you? Blond hair is so out. Redheads are the rage. And your eyes. Wow. Green eyes and red hair. You’ve got it all.”
                Sarah shook her head. “You’re goofy. I suppose you think this stupid hole in my chin looks good.”
                “An angel’s kiss.”
                Sarah giggled. “You’re losing it.”
                Tonya smiled dreamily. “My mom told me once that dimples mean you were kissed by an angel.”
                Sarah frowned. “But you don’t have any dimples.”
                Tonya sat up and grinned at her friend. “Yes, I do. But you’ll never see them.”

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Two other important things to remember! Whether it’s your setting or your characters, don’t dump all your descriptions at once, even when you’re using dialogue. Weave these tidbits throughout your story. The only exception to this has to do with your lead character and his or her love interest. Readers want to get a clear picture of them early so they can concentrate on their story.

Don’t over describe your characters! Give just enough information so that your reader will be able to create their own images. Engaging a reader’s imagination will cause them to be more invested in your story.

Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a copy of Unbreakable
Nancy Mehl lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband Norman and her very active puggle, Watson. She’s authored fourteen books and is currently at work on a new series for Bethany House Publishing. The first book in her Road to Kingdom series, “Inescapable,” came out in July of 2012. The second book, “Unbreakable” released in February of 2013.
All of Nancy’s novels have an added touch – something for your spirit as well as your soul. “I welcome the opportunity to share my faith through my writing,” Nancy says. “God is number one in my life. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I didn’t believe that this is what He’s called me to do. I hope everyone who reads my books will walk away with the most important message I can give them: God is good, and He loves you more than you can imagine. He has a good plan for your life, and there is nothing you can’t overcome with His help.”
Readers can learn more about Nancy through her Web site: www.nancymehl.com or her blog www.suspensesisters.blogspot.com. She is also active on Facebook.


  1. Thanks for the great examples.

    The coffee pot is set for 3 a.m.


  2. This was a great 'learning' post for me. Thank you Nancy.

    I love the cover of your book Unbreakable. I would love to be entered to win a copy. Thank you.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  3. I loved the examples too. Could see the difference and it was so much better. I have to say as a reader I read the descriptions but often dont remember the eye colour etc and tend to have my own picture of the person. Being constantly reminded of the eye colour or hair colour I dont find necessary but I know some times it happens and can be distracting.
    Its posts like this that help me know why sometimes books feel slow and others dont.

  4. COFFEE!!!!! God bless Helen! :)

    Nancy, what a lovely post! Thank you for being our guest in Seekerville today, and dearheart, if you would just cozy down in that nice cushioned seat up front, we'll take care of you while the folks pepper you with questions....

    Coffee, tea and/or juice for starters????


  5. Nancy, reading your post was such an inspiring way to start my morning writing session. Thank you so much for sharing such powerful examples. I absolutely loved how your dialogue added tension to the first scene. Wow!

  6. Hi Nancy,
    It's so good to see you at Seekerville.

    Thanks for sharing with us. I can't wait to look over some of my scenes after reading this.

    Great post.
    Jackie L.


  7. Thanks for today's post and all the great examples. Btw, I love the cover of your book. I pointed it out to my husband over the weekend in the RWR magazine, saying how much classier it was than the typical mainstream romance covers with the shirtless chest man and the woman clawing at him, lol.

  8. Morning Nancy, Welcome to Seekerville and thanks for joining us.

    Great examples. When the Seekers started writing we were always asking each other, "What do they mean when they say show don't tell?" You gave us some great examples.

  9. Hi Nancy,

    Wonderful post. Writer's can do so much with dialogue that can really move the story forward.

  10. Helen, glad to see you're feeling better.

    Nancy, Thanks for the reminding me to give descriptions on lead characters early in.

  11. Not familiar with your work so would love to win a book!
    What I've learned is to be sparing on description but when I do use it to relate it to the character somewhat. My current "hero," Michael Moriarty, is standing on a hotel porch in St. Joseph, Mo., looking out at the bustle in the streets. I use a prostitute who walks by to remind him of his friend Jenny, a Southern man with a slave to remind him of living under the landlords in England, and the smell of the streets to remind him of the smells of Ireland. This is a good post and good advice.
    Kathy Bailey

  12. And yes we sure do need to know how the lead characters look! We can do this through dialogue or through the "eyes" (literally) of the other characters. Please no mirrors (although I am breaking this rule somewhat in "Trail" and having Caroline pin up her hair lead to a short musing about her late husband, but he's important).
    It's all about balance. It always has been.
    Kathy Bailey
    Pre-pubbed in New Hampshire

  13. WOW, GREAT examples, Nancy!! And to be honest, I never really thought of this, so this is a great lesson for me -- THANK YOU!!


  14. These are such great tips and examples. Thank you, Nancy. I can definitely stand to practice this more. I don't tend to dump in a bunch of backstory, but sometimes, I am not sure how to bring it in "naturally." I think your ideas will be very helpful for me in this aspect of writing.


  15. May sends Watson special sniffs and greetings!

    Thanks Nancy - you have SHOWN us how to not tell. :)

    Another printer-offer from Seekerville. Thanks for being here today!

  16. Kathy, you're so right. Balancing description with dialogue and self-revelation is like walking a delightful tightrope of who's seeing/doing what and why....

    Great observations.

    May, you are such a polite pooch. Here's a doggy biscuit, darling girl.

  17. Great article and the contrast was interesting, both actually grabbed my attention.


  18. Nancy,

    I can see the difference and the second is definitely better.

    But you know what I love in your examples? Example one was exactly what we can see in books or in our own works. I was afraid you would write sentence after sentence of description (I would never do.). But I could see myself writing something like the first example.

    Thanks so much.

  19. My above comment probably made no sense...

  20. Good morning! Wow, so many wonderful comments.

    Showing and not telling was a tough one for me when I started out. But when I realized that we are trained to listen to dialogue, and that no one is narrating our lives, it finally made sense. As writers, we need to make our writing something our readers can attach to. Dialogue works best.

    That said, I love beautifully written, flowing narration, so it has its place. We just to know where it should go - and where it shouldn't.

    Thanks for all the input. This is such an awesome site, and I count it a privilege to be here with you all.

  21. If any of you have ever read a Louis L'Amour book, you'll know that WHERE he sets his book is almost as big a part of the story (well, sometimes) as the hero and the plot.
    He moved his books all over the American West and then he'd describe and describe and describe.
    I'm a huge Louis L'Amour fan and some of his descriptions still live in my head....but MOSTLY...those were the places for skimming.
    I think the style of writing has changed because a lot of older books linger over setting descriptions or character descriptions and that's not so true today.
    You need short desciptions, perfectly drawn where every word counts and hopefully while you're describing a character or setting you're also infusing character traits.

    Fiery red hair, blazing green eyes. Or demure blue eyes and white blonde hair that hung to her waist and seemed to wrap around her to guard her heart. Or wise eyes, black as night and sleek brown hair smoothed and coiled into a crown on her head.

  22. Oh, Mary. That's lovely. Spot on!

  23. And this way Nancy has of adding description is also a great way to moderate backstory dumps. You can tell quite a bit about how things are between Sarah and Roger from the way they spar over the restaurant.

  24. Nancy said: I love beautifully written, flowing narration, so it has its place. We just to know where it should go - and where it shouldn't.

    Mary: This is so true. If ever a book is going to rise to the level of poetry it's in 'beautiful written, flowing narration.'
    Has anyone read 'The Time Traveler's Wife?'

    It is so beautifully written, truly beautiful, lyrical use of language.

  25. I'm a big fan of Tosca Lee. She writes poetically - yet she knows how to keep the story moving. Wish I could write like that!

  26. Good morning, Nancy, and welcome to another Kansan!

    (even though I don't live in Kansas now, we've lived there twice in the last 25 years, and my parents lived in McPherson for 10 years - I always have a soft spot for Kansas!)

    I'm so guilty of wanting to use backstory and description dumps! But I usually recognize them in time to fix them. Usually.

    And I love how you said "Don't over describe your characters!" I appreciate it when authors let the reader build the character in their own mind with minimal description. What readers really need is the description of the character's personality more than their physical appearance, don't you think?

    You gave us some greats examples - thanks :)

  27. Deborah Smith has a great style, but I think my favorite lyrical style is Rosina Lippi/Sara Donati. She can place a historical novel in such rugged beauty that the people fit the setting as an afterthought, but the people are so well-layered that they then complement the setting. Or rage against it, and that works too.

    I love LaVyrle Spencer's slightly more cryptic and honest style, too, because her characters are often in a tight spot but she draws them water from the well so skillfully that it seeps reality.

    I wanna be her when I grow up.

  28. Mary,

    I love Louis L'Amour, and I tend to skim some of his descriptions too, especially if I read a couple of his in a row.

    You know what I found funny once I started noticing it? He will use "wicked" in every story, sometimes several times, to describe a punch.

    He threw a wicked right...
    A wicked punch to the belly...

    I want my hero to throw wicked punches.

    Love his books.

  29. Connie,

    I think all authors have "favorite" words we like to work into our books. I try to be careful, but there are a few that keep popping up.

    But I haven't used "wicked." Hmmmm. May have to slip that in somewhere. LOL!

  30. Welcome back to Seekerville, Nancy.

    Wow, nicely done examples. Truthfully you even do a great job with telling!! But then of course that makes your showing even MORE powerful.

  31. Welcome, Nancy! Excellent examples! One of my pet peeves is reading a novel where in the beginning the author is rather vague about the main character's physical appearance. So fine, I create my own mental image and keep reading.

    And then a couple of chapters later the author throws in a specific detail like short curly hair, when I was already seeing the heroine with long, flowing, straight hair. Or that she's petite and well-endowed, when I saw her as tall and willowy.

    The hard part, of course, is working the important details into the early part of the story in a way that doesn't sound forced. I like your idea of using dialogue appropriately as a natural way to show the setting and characters. Thanks for the tip!

  32. Great examples, Nancy! Thanks so much for being with us today to share.

    I'm really picky about character descriptions. I don't like a lead character staring in a mirror thinking about her silky blonde hair and sky blue eyes! :)

  33. It's tricky in series (I find) because I assume readers know what my characters, who've been in two previous books, look like.
    I KNOW better but I find myself not really describing my characters by book three.

    I just realized that a couple of days ago (I'm on book #3 of the trouble in Texas series right now) and I don't know if I've even said the heroine's hair and eye color yet.

    Of course the book starts with a mud wrestling match so she's pretty much coated in mud for the first little while.


  34. Welcome to Seekerville, Nancy! Thanks for the excellent points and examples of using dialogue to reveal setting, back story, character. Always fun to show the POV characters by the biased way they see the world. And how their thoughts don't always match what they say. :-)


  35. I love to be taught by example. I can see it all so clearly. Now, if I could only retain the knowledge while I'm writing!!!!! This is definitely a keeper post!

  36. The dialogue between Sarah and Roger is a terrific, easily-grasped example. The way he responded told me they have backstory. And I was immediately curious about why they have such differing views.

    Years ago, I caught on to the fact you can 'show' what another character is doing through dialogue. Such as, "Don't shake your finger at me -- I know what I'm doing." That was a huge lightbulb moment. This post has been another. Thanks for the info -- and the examples :-)

    Nancy C

  37. Nancy, are the new stories also done in a Mennonite setting? And would you classify them as mysteries or suspense?

  38. Nancy, you're a Kansas girl, too! How cool is that? I have cousins and aunts who live in Wichita. I'm in Northeast Kansas.

    Love this post. Loved the angel's kiss. So cute.

  39. Hi Nancy and welcome to Seekerville. Thanks for the great writing tips. I smiled when I saw that you live in Wichita, Kansas. I have many fond memories of visiting that area when my boys were young and we would travel once a year to visit my in-laws.

    Jodie Wolfe

  40. this is a great learning post. i love the examples... what a difference. i'll be referring to this quite often to help me move along with my story and not bog things down by getting lost in the weeds (so to speak).

    would love to be in the drawing.

    thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!!!

  41. Nancy - wonderful examples! Thanks for taking time to visit Seekerville.

  42. Ruth,

    Yes, the new series will also have a Mennonite setting, but it will be more contemporary than Kingdom. I'm going to mix together Conservative Mennonites, more liberal Mennonites, and people who aren't Mennonite at all. They will be bound by their desire to keep the world out of their town so they can raise their families in peace while they put God first. I think this is a desire most Christians have right now. I guess the questions will be these: How much of the world can we really keep out? And how do we minister to a world we don't want to be a part of? Good questions for this time in our history, I think. I'm looking forward to bringing in more of a mix of people. I think it will give me more plot ideas and more diversity.

  43. Thanks for all your kind comments. The piece I posted here is actually a section from a six-week writing workshop I teach.

  44. I so enjoy your books nancy !! Would love to win a copy of Unbreakable. pj.rodgers@yahoo.com

  45. I love Kansas authors - but will still love you when you move. Great interview Nancy. Thanks a bunch.

  46. i will have to see how i can work this into my reviews! Talking about wicked...the last two books had the hero or secondary character smirking right through the book. What's up with that!
    Glad to have you back, Helen. Thanks for the coffee.

  47. Thanks for visiting with me today everyone. It was fun.

    And I'm glad you'll still love me when I move, Cindy! LOL!

  48. Nancy, that's wonderful. I like your focus and mission with these books, because you've cited the things that can trouble a more "closed" community.

    It's a conundrum. Thank you for being with us today.... And for the night-time peeps, I made popcorn. Fresh... buttered. Well, slathered, actually. :) WITH SALT.

    Don't be whining to me about your low-sodium diet.... Or bring your own....:)

  49. Wonderful post -- beautiful book cover -- thank you. Please accept my entry in the giveaway. would be thrilled to have a copy of this book.

  50. I am a huge fan of Nancy! I'd love to win a copy of this book! makeighleekyleigh at yahoo.com

  51. I am a huge fan of Nancy! I'd love to win a copy of this book! makeighleekyleigh at yahoo.com

  52. Thanks for the tips, Nancy! It does take lots of skill to get backstory and description woven into the story! What a difference between one long paragraph of telling and another of dialogue.

  53. Thanks for an excellent explanation on background and the examples!

  54. Thanks, Nancy---boy, did I ever need this post today! I'm tweaking a manuscript I've written and have realized it needs LOTS more dialogue, so I appreciate your excellent examples. ~ Please put me in the drawing for your book---and I love that cover! Thanks again, Patti Jo

  55. Glad my post helped some of you. Thanks for all the great comments. I have one bone to pick, however. Why didn't I get any popcorn, Ruth? LOL!

  56. a great posting...looking forward to reading your latest best-seller nancy :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  57. Wow, what a cover! I would love to read this book based on just that.

    Jasmine A.

  58. I'm more likely to take in dialogue as opposed to long passages.

    Count me in thanks!!


  59. Hi Nancy, Thanks for your examples. I was amazed at the difference between the paragraph of internal thought and how the scene came alive with dialogue. I think I take this for granted when reading for enjoyment and then reading my own work.

    I can see applying this to my WIPs in that I write the first draft in a dull narrative form. I hope to go back through some of my work and find ways to improve it using this technique.

  60. Hi Nancy, Thanks for your examples. I was amazed at the difference between the paragraph of internal thought and how the scene came alive with dialogue. I think I take this for granted when reading for enjoyment and then reading my own work.

    I can see applying this to my WIPs in that I write the first draft in a dull narrative form. I hope to go back through some of my work and find ways to improve it using this technique.

  61. Thanks for sharing examples. That makes it so much easier to understand.I will be sharing this post with my writer's group.

  62. I love how you tackled description, backstory, and conflict all in one deft blow--dialogue!

    Great post, Nancy!

  63. Thanks for all your kind comments. This is one of the most awesome blogs online, isn't it? Love it!

    Thanks to Mary for inviting me.

  64. Once again Seekerville provides us with invaluable writing lessons. Thank you, Nancy...and I agree, Seekerville is one of the most awesome blogs online!

  65. You're right about the power of dialogue. I added characters to my novel simply so I could use more dialogue, and it strengthened the story immensely.

    Thanks for the examples you provided. Dialogue allows you to both present background/setting information and develop characters at the same time.