The Fatal Flaw of Underwriting

Fatal Flaws FINAL ebook coverHi everyone–I hope you had a terrific weekend and are in the mood to learn. Today I’m handing over the blog keys to Rachel Starr Thomson, one of the editors who have jointly written 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. I’m excited about this venture of Rachel’s as the book  features more than sixty detailed Before and After examples of flawed and corrected passages to help authors learn to spot flaws in their writing. Seeing real examples is a great way to elevate your writing.

The Fatal Flaw of Underwriting

Fundamentally, when we write a story, we want to connect with readers’ emotions. Engage emotion. Elicit it. Give readers a story they don’t just learn but one they feel and will never forget.

Yet emotion is one of the story elements most commonly underwritten—and underwriting in general tends to harm emotional connection the most.

Underwriting is just what it sounds like: it’s the failure to put things on the page that need to be there. When somebody picks up a gun and fires it off, and we didn’t know there was a gun on stage, that’s underwriting. When someone makes a decision completely out of the blue, leaving us not so much surprised as confused, that’s underwriting. When a story just plain doesn’t make sense, it’s probably underwritten.

And when no matter how hard you try, you just can’t give a damn about the characters? Most likely underwriting is at fault.

Why We Underwrite

The dirty little secret, though? Underwriting is sometimes (often) a direct result of following editorial advice like “show, don’t tell,” and “make sure your scenes are active and full of conflict” and “don’t info dump or fill your scenes with backstory.”

As an editor who also writes stuff (a lot of stuff), allow me to eat humble pie and tell you that sometimes we push you to strip so much out of your story that it ends up gasping for breath, struggling to hang on to a shred of character or conflict that anyone cares about.

I’ve been there. I once misinterpreted “show don’t tell” so horrendously that I thought it meant everything had to be conveyed through action and dialogue alone, and I was never allowed to include thoughts or backstory. Talk about gutting a book!


Underwriting hurts emotional connection so badly because it turns everything 2D. We lose contact with really essential parts of our stories, settings, and characters when we fail to include what needs to be there.

In particular, these three often-underwritten areas can make or break connection:

Process. When your character goes from decision point A (“I will not go to the ball”) to decision point B (“I will go to the ball”), and we didn’t see any of the decision process, it’s impossible to feel invested in the question. The Rule of Three is helpful here: in a decision of midlevel importance (meaning it’s more important than “I think I’ll brush my teeth” and less important than “I think I’ll marry the hero after all”), show three stages of the decision-making progress.

I will not go to the ball.

  1. But then I just learned my best friend is going.
  2. If my best friend goes, she will exceed my popularity.
  3. If she exceeds my popularity, I will lose the interest of the prince.

I will go to the ball after all.

Reaction. In my clients’ manuscripts, it’s amazing how often something will happen that ought to get a reaction from the POV character … and it doesn’t. I mean, somebody’s mother might have just died, and we get crickets. When you’re in POV you always always always have to react. Even if you don’t react, it has to be because you’re being so darn deliberate about not reacting. If the temperature drops, shiver. If someone dies, cry. If someone says something provocative, have an opinion about it.

Many times, I’ve had a client return a manuscript after revision, and simply by adding reaction—usually in the form of a thought, shown through deep POV—they had absolutely transformed the story. A character who responds to things is alive, and through that character, the story can be experienced at far greater depth.

The Thoughts Behind Emotion. This is a biggie, and it’s where “show don’t tell” can be so incredibly damaging when misunderstood. We know not to write “She was angry.” So instead, many writers revert to writing “body emotions”: “She ground her teeth.” “She turned red.” This makes for a lot of odd and sometimes unclear images, but it doesn’t connect us to the character’s emotion at all. We see her feeling something; we don’t feel it. The best way to convey emotion, it turns out, is to write thoughts. We feel in response to things we’re thinking. So do our characters. If you can show what they are thinking, nine times out of ten you can make an emotional connection with your readers.

Words are the stuff of our worlds. Without words to translate into vivid images, actions, thought processes, emotions, settings, and more, none of those things can exist. So underwriting is actually as great a danger to a novelist as overwriting—perhaps even a greater one.

Thankfully, underwriting not irreparable. In fact, when we go and fill in the gaps, we might just discover the missing heart of our own stories.

RST author picRachel Starr Thomson is the author of eighteen novels. As an editor and writing coach, she has helped writers achieve their best work for over a decade—so she’s thrilled to contribute to The Writer’s Toolbox series, which gives fiction writers everything they need to know to create compelling, solid stories, with 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.

You can check out all Rachel’s books at her website.

Which of these three areas of underwriting do you struggle with? Let us know in the comments!



Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Grammar, Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to The Fatal Flaw of Underwriting

  1. Batmansbestfriend says:

    One of the best tips I have for underwriters is “If you come up with it, write it.” What the means is that if you think something should be in your story put it in there…it can always be cut out later. Cutting out a part of a story is much easier than trying to remember that idea you didn’t use months after you stopped even thinking about it. Even if you keep all your ideas in a notebook or wherever (it doesn’t matter), once you’ve finished the story you might not be motivated to go back and continue writing to lengthen it. You might have had a “been there, done that” moment and so you cannot go back or you might see the chicken scratch you’ve written down (unused ideas) and not be able to remember why the idea was so great to begin with, and find out…well…that you wish you had just written it into the story to begin with. Anything can be cut out. ANYTHING. Hitting the delete button is very easy. VERY. Trust me. I use it all the time.

  2. Pingback: 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing: "This book is like getting five self-help books in one." -

  3. I am guilty of this! As a professional eBook writer the pressure is on me to get it written quickly and that means a lot of the material is left out at the end. It can be hard to include everything that’s on the agenda into the eBook, especially when researching it is not a priority. I ll do my bet o integrate your suggestions into my writing! Thank a lot.

  4. Pingback: 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing | Rachel Starr Thomson

  5. Excellent advice. Striving for balance in our stories is hard work, but “emotionally rewarding.”

  6. Paul Vitols says:

    Thank you for this post! These are great, practical tips that I intend to use in my own writing.

    With respect to the relationship between thoughts and emotions, I was put in mind of David Burns’s excellent book Feeling Good, in which he presents an effective therapy for depression using just this idea, that thoughts cause emotions, and not vice versa. It’s an idea that has far-reaching consequences, and it’s an astute notion to make use of it in one’s dramatic writing.

    By the way: I’m a newcomer to the positive and negative trait thesauruses, and am delighted with these useful tools. Why didn’t I find them a long time ago? Ah well, I choose to believe that the right things come to us at the right time. Now I’m in a position to appreciate them.

    • Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy can work really well with people who have anxiety and depression (my son has both) so I’m familiar with the idea. I am so glad you found your way to the books and that they are helping you. I agree, we find the things we need when we need them. I hope the writing is going great!

  7. Pingback: Show and tell | Z is for Zampetti

  8. Brianna says:

    Thank you so much! I think I really do this. I know I have so much going on in the story in my head that I leave lots and lots out, Ugh! It’s so hard to walk the line between giving every thought and reason behind everything, and letting the characters say and do things, and having the reader discover what’s going on. I feel like I’ve been criticized on both ends, and so these suggestions were really eye-opening.

    • So glad you found them helpful! This can be a difficult line for me to walk as well. Humility is pretty important as a learning tool :). Sounds like you’re totally there, so more power to you as you find that balance!

  9. Leslie Rose says:

    Wonderful advice. I agree that sometimes we get so hung up in rule following that our stories become laundry with too much bleach.

  10. How important this is!! I have to confess, I stumble a lot with the show don’t tell as well when it comes to emotions for fear of telling too much. I see that you can’t go the other way either. It definitely takes a balance.

    • That’s it exactly. It’s a balance. In many ways, though, it helps to realize that communicating thoughts is SHOWING, not telling. That confused me for years, because I thought that if I just straight-out showed what someone was thinking, I was “telling” readers what was happening. Not the case.

  11. Thanks so much for your clear, descriptive explanations. I do pretty well at Thought Behind Emotion (I write middle grade adventures, deep POV), and decently at Process, but I had never thought of the Reaction part. I’m in revisions now, so I’ll have to go back and check if my slow/blah parts are because of this.

    And thanks in advance for including before/after examples in your book – they make things sink in so much better!

    • You’re very welcome! Glad this sparked something you can use right now. Reaction is SO important. It can be the difference between a character who feels like a real person and one who feels like cardboard.

  12. Paula Cappa says:

    Emotional reaction is one that I struggle with. Once I leave the MS alone for a while and go back for rewrites, I sometimes see the holes This post today is really a good one. Is the 12 Fatal Flaws book going to be available in print edition? I prefer my writing books to be on my shelf and not my Kindle. I’m definitely interested in a purchase.

  13. Claire Gem says:

    This was like nasal spray for my writing brain – thanks so much for this easy to understand advice!

  14. Thank you for sharing. I’m one of those people who once gutted a novel as you described. I was so proud of myself until I read the finished product. Awful. As you say, it was 2D. It was like sitting down to Thanksgiving with cardboard cutout people and a clay turkey. It literally felt like that and made a profound impact on me. You’ve provided the explanation. Thanks.

  15. Sandy Perlic says:

    So glad to see this great summary! So often when I don’t connect with a story, it’s because the author hasn’t shown the character reacting, or let me in on their thought process. One of my worst habits is to show “body emotions”: again, because I’ve been indoctrinated to show, don’t tell. Unfortunately, they can be too vague, or very cliché.

    • Thanks very much for your comment! I have to watch for body emotions too. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how badly that (very good) advice can be taken? I’m hopeful that our book can really help clear this up, as we spend time on POV, backstory, show-don’t-tell, underwriting, and more … I think between the different subjects and the Before-After examples, we managed to flesh out what this adage does and doesn’t mean. I know I learned a lot just in the process of writing the book!

  16. Very good advice and something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I believe that many new writers get sucked into the ‘show don’t tell’ thing too hard. That and the idea that the story needs action, action and more action to hook a reader (or editor or agent). We see this phenomenon in Hollywood movies too. I find that kind of shallow writing to be very boring and I’ve put down more that one unfinished book because I just couldn’t connect to the characters. Right now, I’m re-reading an old favorite–the Belgariad by David Eddings and I wonder if such a tale would even be published today.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Kim! Yup, I’ve seen the action-action-action thing too, and yup, it tends to make for bad writing. Really, when we suck out all the thoughts and emotions and processing, we suck out what makes BOOKS so distinctive as a storytelling method.

  17. Carleen M. Tjader says:

    This is something I haven’t read before. Thank you! Showing, not telling, needs a balance…more revisions!

    • You are welcome! I think this isn’t said very often because editors assume writers know what “show, don’t tell” does and doesn’t mean. It’s one of those things that’s really best demonstrated. If you just read the advice, it’s super easy to take it wrong and hurt your writing. Have fun revising!

  18. Great post. Just what I’m working on right now! Thanks.

  19. This is such great advice! I also tend toward underwriting—mostly in the story structure area. When the whole thing’s done, I realize that I need to add scenes to flesh the story out. My first draft is always very sparse; while everyone’s slicing big chunks off of their manuscript, I’m usually adding stuff on. 🙂 Thanks for being here, Rachel!

    • You’re welcome! I am much the same way. I’ve always been a lean writer, not a wordy one. It was actually helpful to me to realize that advice that applies to most writers often doesn’t apply to me :). But this is an area that definitely does!

  20. Kessie says:

    Oh yeah, I massively underwrite everything in the first draft. Fortunately, studying/dissecting bestselling work, and brushing up on structure (scenes/sequels are your FRIEND), has helped me immensely. I’ve gone from my crit group and editor going, “Rewrite this monstrosity,” to, “here’s a few small tweaks”.

    That emotional reaction is my babe. I just … forget to put it in. Thank goodness for revisions!

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