I go to a lot of movies. I love movies. Almost as much as I love books. And some movies made from some of my favorite books turn into great movies–such as Hunger Games. Movies have an advantage books don’t–visuals.
When a movie opens, it can show the scene, you get a sense of the time period, you know whether you’re in the future or the past, you see the characters. So the movie can get right to the action and the character development.
We can do that in books too, we just have to be a little more sneaky about it. I try to write for readers who are like me. I have never liked reading long passages of description, not when I was 12 and I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not now, when I mostly read young adult books. I suppose there are some who like that, but I’m not one of them.
Why do you think way more people go to movies than read books? I don’t have an answer, but I suspect one reason is there are no long passages of description. (Among many other draws.)
So how do we as writers give just enough information to our readers to tell them where they are in time and space without making them skip on to some dialogue?
Carefully chosen details inserted strategically within the rest of the action. Often, when I’m editing a manuscript (as I mentioned in my last post) the author will use a ton of adjectives, when one perfectly chosen one will do the job.
I had the discussion the other day with one of my favorite young authors (my daughter, Melissa) about describing characters’ physical features. Some of her friends ore of the opinion that every single character in a book deserves a full description of hair color, eye color, shape of face, height, build, etc. All I have to say to that is ewwwww. I don’t want to read that. To me, authors who write all that information are trying to control my experience of the story. They want me to see exactly what they imagine in their own heads.
(Note to all authors: you cannot control the book once it’s out of your hands. So don’t try. Allow the reader, please, to make the book her own.)
Ellen Hopkins, one of my favorite authors, does not describe her characters’ physical appearance. She would rather tell the story. I agree. Unless a physical attribute of a character is specifically pertinent, what does it matter what they look like? Can’t the reader imagine that for themselves? To be quite honest, I never imagine the characters in a book the way the author describes them. Author X can tell me that a certain character has blond hair, but I may have already pictured that character with dark hair, and so it shall be. I’m not changing the image in my head.
So I prefer to use only specific details about a character. In one of my novels (yet to be published), a character picks at the skin around her fingernails. It’s a nervous trait of hers. I’m not describing her fingernails, but showing something about her personality through a physical detail. Probably one of the most famous character details is Harry Potter’s scar. Not only does the scar make him instantly recognizable to all in the wizarding world, which sometimes helps him and sometimes hurts him, it also shows something about him. His past. In one scar, his whole past is summed up. Brilliant.
The movie I saw today was the new “Amazing Spider-Man.” I won’t give out spoilers, although don’t we all know the story by now? In this version, one of the characters has only a partial arm on his right side. That motivates everything he does, good and bad. That’s an important physical trait. We don’t care about whether or not he wears glasses or is bald or fat. All we really need to know is the stump of his arm.
So that is my advice for today. Keep physical description of characters to the minimum–what will show who your character is? Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.