Description – Interiority VS Exteriority

A picture is worth a thousand words. Everyone has heard of that old saying, and for good reason. Describing a scene is hard work in creative writing!

This is the first post on a new mini-series about descriptions for writers. To kick it all off, let’s really get our heads around the idea of interiority and exteriority in literature.

Take this featured image of a man walking in snow. In a story, you need to make this come to life for someone who doesn’t have the picture as a reference. Who are they? What are they feeling? Where are they? How did they get there? Why are they there? To do all this while also moving the story along can take writers to find their own unique way of putting descriptions to scenes.

Since the possibilities are endless as to what a writer can focus on in a scene, the concept of interiority and exteriority was implemented to group these options. Both are vital to the immersion of a reader so they can grasp what it is that a writer is attempting to convey. Too much, however, can bog down the pacing of a story.

All manner of scholarly articles have been made about these concepts. While I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert here, below is my interpretation of interiority and exteriority. These have personally helped me ensure I’m providing important information in my stories.


Exteriority: The Observable

  • Environment
  • Spoken words
  • Actions
  • Physical description of characters
  • Mannerisms

Example: Moira sat in the DMV’s only empty chair and fidgeted with the queue number she was given.

Interiority: The Unobservable

  • Feelings
  • Morals or values
  • Thoughts
  • Attitude
  • Biases
  • Past experiences

Example: She spotted an eye exam at the back wall but couldn’t make out even the middle line, suddenly regretting coming alone with the family car.


What your descriptions focus on is most often influenced by the perspective of your story. If we’re reading a 1st person story of a fashion designer, it will be expected that plenty of words will be put toward what the character, and others, are wearing.

The tendency of many new writers is to keep these mutually exclusive in separate sentences or paragraphs. The issue is that this can feel like added bloat or padding to passages. Instead, it’s always best to try and thread a cause-and-effect between the two. Emotions causing actions, biases influencing mannerisms, etc.

The tip of “Show, don’t Tell” applies very much to both of these categories. From the example, Moira was nervous. Well, why was she nervous? It’s hard for a reader to care if they can’t access the emotion you’re describing.

How much is too much description of either category? In my opinion, everyone’s unique style makes this hard to formulate. Genre can help dictate this as well. For example, an adventure book may focus more on exteriority since that’s what readers are there to read about, while leaving much of the interiority up to assumption by using more stereotypical characters. On more character-driven pieces, a reader can expect tons of interiority while actual actions come may across more perfunctory.

I’ll be devoting an entire article in the future to Hemmingway’s iceberg theory (AKA, the theory of omission) which delves into his style in particular. I bring this up now, however, just to say that Hemmingway found much success in what wasn’t outright stated for readers, versus always spelling out every description. The devotion he showed to short stories throughout his career meant that he knew the cost of lengthy descriptions. Word real estate is at a premium in smaller tales. It’s a particular style that I attempt (with varying success) to emulate when writing.

Do you focus on these when writing? Are there other aspects of scene description you want to see explored? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know!

Keep turning the page,

Chris

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