Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

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