Despair – a necessary angst?

And so we come to the final instalment of Robb’s thoughts on writing.

It’s been an interesting week and I’ve loved reading other people’s take on the process. A huge thank you to Robb for giving so generously of his time and wisdom!

3-D Writing, Part 3

3-D writing is the art of surrounding readers with your story, pulling them in and making them a part of it rather than just a reader. Dialog, Description and Despair are three key facets: the three Ds of 3-D writing. The last key:


No, I’m not referring to what the writer feels as she struggles to get the dialog and description perfect or when yet another agent rejection letter appears by e-mail.

I’m talking about the characters’ emotions coming off the page and surrounding the reader in 3-D. Whether it’s despair, anger, anxiety, love, fear, euphoria, or murderous rage, getting the reader to internalize the character’s emotion is critical. Great dialog and perfect description is bland and boring without emotion. Telling the reader how the character feels doesn’t do the job.

Thousands of articles, books and blog posts have expounded on the standard writing advice of ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s more than good advice. It’s what makes a story come off the page. It’s also often misinterpreted and repeated by some like a mantra without ever explaining what it means and when or how to use it.

Let’s visit Laurie in the pub again. Here are the two of the same examples used in the previous article on description.

Version 1: Laurie sat at the bar, depressed. She glanced occasionally toward the door. Then he walked in. He was tall, handsome and well-dressed, and caught her eye immediately.

Forget the description. Look for the emotions. They’re all there in black and white. She’s depressed. She’s expecting or anticipating something or someone, but she’s not very excited about it. When he walks in, her mood changes to interest. How do we know all this? It’s obvious: the writer told us so.

Version 2: Laurie hunched over her martini and played with the olive. She didn’t know why she bothered; no one interesting ever came in this pub. Yet each time the door opened, her eyes flicked toward the entrance. When he walked in, ducking slightly to clear the door, she sat up a little straighter. She’d never seen him around before. His perfectly tailored suit accentuated the broad shoulders and trim waist underneath. Laurie turned slightly, keeping her eyes in his general direction but trying not to be obvious. His sun-bleached hair contrasted with his surfer’s tan. A yacht. Maybe he owns a yacht. “That’s the life for me,” Laurie thought as she met his gaze full on.

Here we know she’s depressed, hoping for something but not excited, and then her mood lifts considerably. But the writer didn’t tell us that. So how do we know? The writer surrounded us with her actions, very minor ones, and her thoughts. Her mood comes off the page, especially when it subtly changes to interest.

Once more, with feeling.

1. Laurie sat at the bar, depressed.


2. Laurie hunched over her martini and played with the olive.

In the first example, the writer tells the reader she is sitting at the bar (action) and that she is depressed (emotion). In the second, the writer does not tell us this, but merely shows Laurie to us. We can see her. We can see what she’s doing. We can read her mood. We’re in the bar with her. I think I’ll have a beer and watch her a little longer. She’s kinda cute.

1. She glanced occasionally at the door.


2. No one interesting ever came in this pub, so she didn’t know why she bothered. Yet each time the door opened, her eyes flicked toward the entrance.

The writer can tell us what she is doing (glancing at the door occasionally), or he can keep us in the bar, sipping on our beer, watching Laurie as she flicks her eyes toward the entrance when someone walks in. But not only are we in the bar watching her, now we are in her head, hearing her thoughts in our minds. Neighborhood pub, the usual crowd of people we find dull and uninteresting. Wait. Laurie finds them dull and uninteresting; we’re just reading a story, remember? Too late. We’re in the scene and inside her skin.

1. He caught her eye immediately.


2. Laurie turned slightly, keeping her eyes in his general direction but trying not to be obvious.

In the first example, after the writer told us the man was tall, handsome and well-dressed, the writer proceeds to tell us the effect he had on Laurie. In the revised example, we are still in the bar watching her, and inside her head intuitively understanding what she is thinking and feeling. 3-D.

All of the second examples surround the reader with Laurie’s emotions by conveying her thoughts, her feelings, and her state of mind. They stay in Laurie’s POV rather than stopping the story to have a narrator describe what the man looks like. They pull the reader much more closely into Laurie’s POV, so close it almost feels like first person, but it remains in third person the entire time.

The second versions set the reader down at the bar next to Laurie, or pull the reader into Laurie’s head. The reader not only sees what Laurie sees, hears what Laurie thinks, but feels what Laurie feels. The writer doesn’t have to tell us. We see it, feel it, experience it first-hand.

When the man walks in, we are carried along with Laurie’s emotional swing from despair to a high state of interest. We even get a clue of her motivation. Does Laurie seem bored with her life, looking for some excitement, maybe a bit of a gold digger?

Wrapping up

Use the three Ds to make your writing 3-D. Capture the right balance in dialog, description and despair (and all the other emotions your characters experience), and you’ll surround your readers with a few hours of entertainment.

Instead of flinging their Kindles across the room, they’ll keep coming back for more.

Robb Grindstaff is the managing editor of an international English-language daily newspaper, currently living in the Washington, D.C., area. He is a thirty-year veteran of the daily newspaper business. His newspaper career has taken him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to D.C., with a five-year stint in Tokyo.

He fell in love with Australia on dive trip to North Queensland a few years back, and has vowed to return. So be forewarned.

With a career in writing, editing and marketing journalism, he has turned his experience toward fiction, and writes commercial and literary novels and short stories. Sample chapters of two of his novels are available at and He also does free lance fiction editing. You can find him wasting time on Facebook at

Robb Grindstaff


14 thoughts on “Despair – a necessary angst?

  1. Thanks again to Robb, and to everyone who’s participated in the week. It’s been enlightening and interesting. Look forward to following some new blogs myself 🙂

    Happy, successful writing to you all!

  2. Sarah, I went to a workshop by Donald Maas and he talked about making your character face the worst thing they could imagine, then allowing them to overcome that. I was writing Border Watch at the time and I did that to one of the characters. I’ve had more emails regarding that scene and the aftermath than for anything else, so I guess it can work!

    Hi Sandy, it’s been a stellar week and if Robb and his family make it back to Oz he’ll have tour guides dotted all over the country ready to return his kindness 🙂

    Pete, Robb came via a jar of chutney that originated with some hilarious posts that started with a blog appearance by Phillipa Fioretti, so I think she does deserve a 3 book contract – Hachette is perfect for that!!! (Of course, she deserves that contract anyway, regardless of her gracious presence in cyberspace).

    I don’t think Sala, the chef who made the chutney, has any publishing aspirations – she’s too busy sorting out air traffic in Australia!!

  3. A great series, Robb!

    Helene, I don’t know who the genius was that suggested Robb’s guest appearance, but whoever it is, she deserves a three book deal from someone.

  4. Quite right girls, Rob has thrown a light on the good but somehow not-quite-helpful-without- examples advice of ‘sdt’.

    Thanks Rob for popping downunder – and don’t ‘ack’ homestead. I got a delightful vision of a ghostly, virtual you sneaking into Helene’s fridge, helping yourself to a Tim Tam or two and then teasing the manic dog. 🙂

  5. I have to agree I was expecting something….else. Not necessarily better or worse, just not quite the simplicity of “show, don’t tell” being unpacked, with examples. Poor Laura. She’s never getting out of that bar but at least Robb is going to chug down a beer with her 😉

    I guess I was expecting some commentary on the concept of “drama” – how to inject enough that your characters aren’t flat and boring but how far to take it so it doesn’t become “melodrama.”

    There’s a trick to it. I don’t know what the trick is, so don’t ask 🙂 However, I’ve actually done it back when I was writing science fiction adventures (now I’m writing romantic suspense which definitely falls prey, as an industry, to the melodrama rather than mere drama for the story’s sake) I like the “epic” feel to the SF stories I’ve written and it’s definitely because the characters are such emotional people and wear their feelings out there where all can access them. The vulnerability makes them appealing, more so because they are essentially very strong people doing epically-heroic things. It’s the same reason, I think, we all feel drawn to admire or want to know those selfless “heroes” who wear uniforms of one sort or another and go toward danger when the rest of us would run away to safety (i.e., military, police, fire & rescue).

    The only thing I can add to a discussion on adding “despair” to a story is to use the trick that favorite of mine, Lois McMaster Bujold, and many, many others have employed. This works not only to add drama to a story and depth to a character but also makes a storyline more gripping and a story arc more epic. I suppose, in a way, I’ve always done this in my SF stories. Now I just need to do it in my romance. It’s a simple 2-step process.

    1) Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this person right now?”

    2) Do that to them.

    There’s obviously more to it–you have to “be” the person to whom this horrible thing happens and then imagine what it would feel like to have this “worst” thing happen, how would you react, how would you endure?

    Then of course, you have to either let the horrible thing destroy the character (tragedy) or find a character trait you can use to let the character overcome this interim obstacle by his or her own powers (triumph of the human spirit). This is the single-most popular and salable story archetype on the market today–and indeed for the last 10 years.

    The question of “what’s the worst thing that could happen to this person?” isn’t really enough to make an overall story arc but it definitely will help you form / shape a scene or interim set of plot points in a “gripping” or “engaging” way.

    Put simply enough to please the editor in Robb: this method gets you from point A to point C, not from A to Z.

    Thanks, Helene, for hosting this 3-part discussion. I’ll definitely be back next week for your next guest, Lindy Cameron. Cya then!

  6. Great to see the ‘show don’t tell’ axiom unpacked and set out so clearly.I was expecting a post on the angst that writers drag around with them. Guess I’ll just put the vodka away for now.

  7. Robb, you are very welcome to homestead at my place in cyberspace or indeed in our home in beautiful North Queensland when next you visit OZ. (It’s a pleasant 79 deg midwinter day in Trinity Beach as I type!)

    Jennifer, I have to laugh – I could scream too when the ‘show don’t tell’ line comes up. Robb has done an excellent job of putting that into perspective.

  8. And a huge thanks to you Helene for letting me homestead on her blog for the week. I’m much too lazy to have my own blog, but I like being an occasional guest. It’s great. Sleep on the couch, help myself to the fridge in the middle of the night, invite all my friends over to hang out. But guests (even guest bloggers) are like fish. Great to have for dinner occasionally, but after a week they begin to smell.

    Thanks for the opportunity to chat with your readers.

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