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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Descriptions without Describing

If there is something that drives me crazy when I’m reading it’s the “looking in the mirror” description trope used by far too many writers. 

Rise Up! Break the habit! Our characters deserve better!

“She looked down at her small, 5’4” body and sighed. With a practiced gesture she moved her long, curly black waves over her shoulder, bending to pick up the step-stool. By stretching just right she could still just barely reach the glasses, and had just finished getting them down when her supervisor walked in.”

Not a great description. Yes. we know her height, hair color/length. I could probably have thrown in her eye color. We can tell she’s a bit annoyed at being so short, and she practices moves to draw people’s eyes away from her short stature. Yes. It’s description. But it’s stifling. Wouldn’t you agree?

Try this. Try describing your character simply by the actions that portray their physicality. This character is a shorter person. She needs a step stool. Or she wears high heels. I could say,

“Knowing the wine glasses were out of reach, Brenda went to get the dreaded step-stool. She kicked off her Louboutin’s and stomped up the three steps. “Stupid thing!” Carefully placing the glasses on the granite counter beside her, she had just about finished when her supervisor came into the room.”

Says the same thing in an entirely different way. In fact, you can fit a lot more interesting details in when you free yourself from having to Show description. Tell me what your character does. How your character moves about in the world. How they are awkward, or comfortable, in their own skin. How they trip over their own feet because they’re a teenager just getting used to their rapidly growing bodies, rather then saying “He is 13.”

A good practice exercise for this is to go to the mall, park, baseball game...wherever there are lots of people doing lots of random things. Pick two or three and write exactly what they are doing. How they are doing it. How many steps it took the really tall man to get from his truck to the porta-potty. How hard the short woman had to strain to lift her child up to the monkey bars. How the old woman with the cane braced herself against the car to load her groceries into the back seat. One bag at a time.

You don’t need to know that he was a 45 year old man with salt and pepper hair, blue eyes and a beer gut. That can come out later. When you show him at home in front of his tv, drinking a 6-pack.

Our readers are pretty smart. And they have imagination. It’s far more important for the reader to understand how a character will react in a situation, then to know how their hair is going to look.

So here’s your assignment class! Take the following description and change it, any way you want (just keep the essence the same), using tips I showed you.

“He couldn’t believe it. 42 years old. Oh well. At least his hair wasn’t too grey. He turned away from the bathroom mirror, feeling for his thick glasses. Shambling out to his lounger, he eased his massive body into the broken springs and opened a fresh bag of chips. Maybe this year he would lose the weight.”


Sharon Bayliss said...

I agree! I am often annoyed by character description, especially on page one. Yuck. Honestly, I don't need to know that a character is 5'4". Short, sure, but not exact measurements!

I like this, "Our readers are pretty smart. And they have imagination. It’s far more important for the reader to understand how a character will react in a situation, then to know how their hair is going to look."

Brooke R. Busse said...

Hmmmph. She thinks she's short. I'm two inches shorter and likely not to grow anymore.

Alicia C. said...

Sorry Brooke! I was going on one of my sister's frustrations that she has...

mshatch said...

The doorbell's incessant forced Mike up and out of the recliner, grunting and cursing as he did, a bag of half-eaten chips clutched in one hand. He walked ponderously over to the door, opened it, and blinked a few times before he remembered his glasses.

A stunning dark haired woman smiled back at him from his front step. "Hi!" she said brightly. "I'm your new neighbor!"

The chips dropped to the floor and Mike tried - unsuccessfully - to suck in his gut. Maybe it was time to lose the weight.

mshatch said...

Hey! There's nothing wrong with being short. We can wear heels (even if they hurt our feet), we never have to worry about the guy being taller because he always is, and, as we get older, we don't have so far to fall so less likely to injure ourselves and end up in the special care wing with a bedpan and a walker. So Yay for being short! *so says the girl who's 5'2" and happy being that height!*

Liz said...

This is one I struggle with.

Aldrea Alien said...

I cannot stand height measurements up to inches. I'm 4’11” (and a half ^_~), yet I very much doubt people think anything more than "short". I'm forever climbing the shelves in the supermarket to get what I want.
What really bugs me is when weight is mentioned. She (and it generally IS a she) was so many pounds/stones/kilos. I can understand if the story's about weight-loss/gain and the MC's obsessed. That I get. But often it's not.

And I did use the reflection of a run-down shop in my recent WiP. *gasp* Not to show a thing of the character's features, but to admire her new dress. She does glance up at her hair and think the brown linen detracts from the vibrant colour. But it's not revealed that she has blood-red hair until MUCH later on. In fact, I don't think eye colour is even mentioned ... mainly because I didn't think it mattered.

On the other hand, I've another story that has someone saying he wished the reflection in the mirror wasn't his. Yet without the description, people became confused with what he was. ^_^

Alicia C. said...

That's great!

Alicia C. said...

I did too. But I work on these exercises all the time. There's a great book out called "Hooked" by Les edgerton. That helped me a GREAT deal with how I view my writing.

Alicia C. said...

Well....those certainly sound intriguing! Especially that last one...

Alicia C. said...

I know. Nothing is harder to read then the litany of some character's attributes. Blah boring. Though it is interesting to me how tolerant I am of it in the classics. Like Austen. She can describe Mr. Darcy for DAYS and I'd be ok with that! :)