We’ve all heard about “showing, not telling” when it comes to writing, but I’d like to talk about one aspect in particular. With many beginning writers, I’m struck by how they wax poetic for paragraphs on end about…a living room. They proceed to describe, in detail, the exact shade of the color of the couch, all of the furnishings, the color of the drapes, every single picture, plus what’s in the attached dining room such as the patterns on the plates, place mats, napkins, and napkin rings, and how they’re arranged on the table.
What I figure is that at some point the writer learned they needed to put some detail into their writing, but instead of concentrating on character motivations and plot, they instead go into lengthy descriptions of the hue, fabric, and length of clothing of each person in the room. Sometimes, there’s so such detail about a vacation spot, I feel it should be in a brochure. (And most likely they did nab it from a website anyway…but this isn’t about plagiarism.) There may be a reason why writers forget to fully develop their character in favor of trying to convey their deep motivation for their choice in bed linens.
When showing and not telling, the author needs to stay within a single character viewpoint. Many writers forget to let the character live and breathe. They forget the characters are independent with their own thoughts and actions. When that happens, the writer tells what that character is going through instead of showing. Have you ever read a book and been taken out of it? You’re thinking, “These are the author’s views, not the character’s.” That’s because they’re forgetting the character’s viewpoint. Real people experience things. They don’t think about them that deeply. When a person walks into a house, they have a general impression. Is the furniture shabby? Are the colors garish? Does it look like a museum or a frat house? The thoughts come in short bursts.
Sometimes the writer is even kind enough to tip their hand about a future plot point, thus ruining the element of surprise (What I didn’t know then, was this would be my last happy moment for a long time), incidents happening outside of their reality. (Meanwhile, in a corridor at the other end of the hospital…) or they know what another character is thinking ( “What Johnny didn’t know was that Jane was standing right behind him and heard everything he said.” ) Well, if we’re in Johnny’s head, and Johnny didn’t know, then JOHNNY DIDN’T KNOW. That means we can’t either, since we are, essentially, Johnny. I call that “Head Hopping” which I’ll cover in another blog.
The character must live in the moment if the writer is writing chronologically. Most real people experience events in a disjointed way. This is supposed to be the real world. It should be vivid and thoughts should come in short bursts. Keeping this in mind will stop the writer from waxing eloquent on the color of a leaf for an entire paragraph. Sure, if it’s a nature book, it will be fascinating to the reader, but if this is fiction, there’s no better way to stop the story dead in its tracks.
If the character thinks in chronological order and keeps it brief, the reader won’t have to flip back to remember what happened. For instance, one character says something, then the other character thinks about their answer for two pages before saying, “I tried.” Wait. What was Johnny responding to again?” Flip, flip, flip…
The writer can now scale down the description so that it has more impact. Leave something to the reader’s imagination! I know when I see the words “place mat” I start skimming. It’s better to make the descriptions short and interesting.
Another aspect to remember with description and viewpoint. With one manuscript I was editing, I came across a description of the main character’s room that didn’t sound one thing like the character. In this case, the description was interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I thought there must be a reason this room figured so prominently and was so unlike the character. When I asked the author, they told me there was no reason for it. That it was a room they knew and they just threw it into the story. This had me perplexed. Why not wait until they had a character who went with the room, rather than giving the room to a character it didn’t belong to? And again, the reader would think there was a reason the writer gave the character such a bizarre room. With no payoff, the reader will be left scratching their head. This is the other end of the spectrum. If the description is detailed and out-of-the-ordinary, there should be a reason behind it.
The writer also needs to remember not to use nebulous terms. Describing someone as “an old man” is subjective. What’s an old man to a ten-year-old would certainly not be the same to a thirty-year-old.
Instead, for instance, the character should note the lines on the person’s face, the stooped posture, and how they’re always reminiscing about “the good old days when people had manners and respected their elders.” And speaking of the age of the character, most teenagers wouldn’t know fine crystal from some nice glass.
Make sure the character thinks like a real person. When reading a particular passage, I’ve often thought, “Would a person really think that in their own head? Has anyone ever thought to themselves ‘the iridescent blue of my eyes stood out against my pale complexion?’ ”
I’ve had to research a lot about this stuff, both for my own benefit as a writer and as an editor. As a writer, I try to keep these tidbits in mind, so my writing has impact and doesn’t drag. As an editor, if I can give the writer a good, logical reason as to why they need to cut out the page describing the exact shade of blue of the vase, we might both be satisfied.