Avoid rear-view mirror descriptions in stories

When writing action scenes, avoiding rear-view mirror descriptions typically is a good idea. In such a description, an object is described only after it’s been part of the action. For example, He slid into the cave hole that his foot had just felt. This type of writing allows the reader to see the setting only after the character has interacted with it – in short, it’s like looking at a landscape through a rear-view mirror.

Such writing diminishes the reader’s ability to feel the story’s dramatic tension and to sense the character’s urgency. It strains the story’s verisimilitude because the character appears to be extremely lucky as he is able to get out of any jam thanks to the author’s good blessings.

This type of description is a common error of novice writers, so not surprisingly this term often is most heard is writing workshops. In fact, it was coined at the Cambridge Science Fiction workshop.

To avoid rear-mirror descriptions, lay out in advance the setting, including all objects with which the characters later will interact. In addition, reverse the order of sentences or phrasing within them so that the object appears before it is acted upon. The above example of a rear-view mirror description could be rewritten as: His foot slipped into an opening in the dark rock. It felt just large enough to accommodate him. “This must be the cave entrance,” he thought. He slid into the hole.