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Author Blog Challenge: The Writing Mistake You Might be Making

English: The main character in the comic serie...

English: The main character in the comic series “Lame Strips” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sat at the front of the writing class, giving a reading from Self-help for Stoners. The story, “Another Day at the Office” is  about a guy with a skunk talking his way out of search, seizure, jail and worse at the hands of a policeman in Texas during a traffic stop.

When I finished, I looked up and asked, “How old is the main character?”

I pointed around the classroom. “22! 28! 35! 40!” they answered.

“What colour was his hair?”

“Red! Blonde! Bald! Black! Brown! Wispy Comb over!” (Good for you. I never would have thought of wispy combover for that character.)

There you go. Too much description limits your readers’ imaginations and puts their visions in little boxes that belong only to you. Be more generous and don’t assume your reader is an idiot. They’ve seen people in their lives. They’ll fill in the blanks. The readers want some ownership of the story in the theatre of their minds, too. Don’t describe too much. Was it Dashiell Hammet who said his hero was “knuckly” and left it at that? Too much description has  become a cliche that often opens a lot of books: the main character inspects himself in the mirror before heading off for work. They preen and describes themselves to the reader. Don’t. Instead, please let the action and dialogue carry me along. Let me insert my own vision of your characters. I’ll have a picture in my mind before long and I might even be annoyed if the author’s description differs with my own.

Even then, be sparing. My hit man in Bigger Than Jesus has a thing for expensive suits. It comes up as it pertains to the action and as it pertains to character. It is not there just to make up an arbitrary word count. In fact, it’s crucial to the character. No campfire story starts with a long description of what everyone is wearing unless there’s a point or a clue to character. Be just as judicious, whether you’re telling ghost stories to a bunch of kids around a campfire on their first trip into the woods or writing books for the masses.

BONUS:

Tuesdays and Fridays, I do a little podcast from my author site at AllThatChazz.com. A fresh episode (#29!) is up now in which I tackle letters from Republicans, creep out my twelve-year-old and worry, too late, about my blood pressure.

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18 Responses

  1. Jo Michaels says:

    Most excellent point. I wrote on this myself not too long ago 🙂 Great minds and all that…

  2. Chazz says:

    Great minds and…don’t finish that quote!

  3. I’ve found myself using less and less description lately too, unless, as you say, it has a specific point for that character, otherwise does it really matter? Nope. Not really. And I also like to decide in my head what they look like. Isn’t this why people get upset when their favorite book gets made and they think the actors chosen look nothing like what they envisioned in their head?

  4. Fascinating topic! I heard a quote on NPR (and blast it, I can’t find it) that encouraged writers to leave room for reader add details. Too much description and the reader can’t participate in the story by interjecting their own interpretations. =D

  5. Just Coop It says:

    Wow…I found this surprisingly useful. I totally agree with some authors over describing things. : )

  6. T.L. Bodine says:

    This is spot-on advice. I always gloss over long character descriptions. All we need are a couple of key details…we’ll fill in the rest, and it’s so much more fun that way. The same is true, I think for describing anything else — settings, weather, monsters. Just give enough details to suggest the scene, then let us fill in the details. I think of it sort of like a camera’s depth-of-field — focus on a couple of things and let the rest of it stay blurry. The “photo” will look more artistic than a polaroid where everything is in focus.

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