Thoughts as They Tumble Out

12 Jul

My thoughts today are a bit rambling, kind of like a tumbleweed.

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.


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6 responses to “Thoughts as They Tumble Out

  1. marsharwest

    July 13, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    I have to take a moment and say, I love the picture. I spent a lot of growing up years in El Paso. We had tumbleweeds like that. They were like alive creatures to me as a child, both scary and powerful.
    The descriptive thing is just one of those subjective opinions we find in writing. Some people love a lot, some people don’t want any, and some are middle of the roaders, needing something for a jumping off point. You just have to have the amount a publisher or your readers enjoy. 🙂

  2. Janis McCurry

    July 13, 2012 at 8:56 AM

    I’ve always felt my description talents were lacking. I just don’t naturally spend sentences describing things. It’s something I constantly have to remind myself to put in my writing. Whether or not too little or too much description is like Marsha says…subjective. At least, it’s good to be aware.

  3. stephaniebergets

    July 13, 2012 at 12:36 PM

    I like the idea of leaving it to our readers to imagine the characters. I usually have an idea of how each character looks without the author telling me, and its usually not the same picture. Thanks for a great post.

  4. Clarissa Southwick

    July 14, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    I’m with you. I tend to skip over the long descriptive passages, but I love the telling details. 🙂

  5. Karen Krueger

    July 14, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    I am exactly the same way. It’s funny because when I was a teen I read lots of high/epic fantasy and loved it. But now I can’t get through them as well because there is too much description for paaaages. And with character descriptions, ditto. I imagine the character the way I want to. I’ve often gotten to the ends of books and there’s some detail about the MC being blonde or something and I totally thought she was brunette. Anyway, great post! 🙂

  6. maryvine

    July 14, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    What was in twenty or thirty years ago romance novels had description of clothes and more detail on the physical appearance? Things have so changed. I like to have detail such as hair color, but can live without the other stuff. Sometimes I don’t like the hero’s picture on the cover (or cover model) and wish I hadn’t seen it. Thanks.


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