What’s He Look Like, Again?

Today’s topic comes from the NaNoWriMo forums, namely, “How do you work in description in novels without making the story come to a stand still?”

When it comes to getting information across in a story, it can often be a struggle. You don’t want to give the reader nothing to go on–so they are confused/have no idea what anything looks like–but you also don’t want to hit pause in the middle of action to go “hey, by the way, this is what this room looks like.”

Excuse me while I take the next two pages to describe this generic hotel room. (Source: William Warby/Flickr)

WriMo Se.Ka.Ya. describes the struggle well, posting:

[My worst writing habit is] I don’t even do description, The reason I started leaving description out was that I started with too much of it. It’s like describing a picture in class – I had a character, room or whatever, and the story stopped while I explained what was there and how it looked and what material it was etc. – and then the story continued. So I started consciously leaving those parts out, which made me end up at the other side where I can’t even get the colors of [my characters’] uniforms right, because I [didn’t] think to mention something I have no plan for.

As with most things in writing, writing description is a balancing act, and it is very simple to swing too far to one extreme or another. The good news, though, is that there tends to be an easy fix when it comes to getting in some description without pausing action to give a laundry list of everything in a room/a character is wearing/etc. And that is:

Work in description while your character is interacting with the items being described.

There are very few people who walk into a new room and consciously begin to list off everything they are seeing. Therefore, it is both more interesting and more natural to start with one or two descriptors and then move on from there. For example:

Boring/Laundry List Description: John walked into the old, dusty room. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there for years. A red carpet sat on top of wood floors with a set of old chairs on top of the carpet toward the wall to John’s left. A canopy bed with matching red curtains was off to is right and looked just as dusty as everything else. On the far wall, a large window mostly covered with curtains let in a ray of light that let John see the deep green wall paper that was peeling off the wood walls. 

Description mixed with action: John walked into the old room, coughing as dust few up out of the thick red carpet under his feet. He batted it away as he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room. It didn’t look as though anyone had been there for years. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to be in there much longer himself. Glancing around, John moved for the canopy bed to his right. If he had had to hide a treasure map, that was where he’d have put it. Pushing the equally dusty curtains out of the way, he scanned the frame for anything out of the ordinary…

As shown in the second “description” it is possible to get in much of the same information as the first laundry list all while keeping the action of the scene moving (John looking for a treasure map). As he continues his search around the room, he can move to the chairs, pull open the curtains, interact with the space as the reader gets a more and more complete picture of what is there with him. Just like with backstory, it works best to make chunks of information “bite size” and work them in as the reader goes along so things are never pulled away from the action too long to tell the reader chunks of information.

So, if you are struggling working in description, remember:

  1. Not everything needs to be described at once (start with the big things you would notice when you first enter a room first; the rest of the information can likely wait)
  2. It is possible to work description in while the action is still happening “on screen”

From there, with a little practice, you should be in pretty good shape.

Just a Pretty Face

As I’ve said before, I am a dialogue person. For whatever reason, dialogue is more fun (and plainly easier) for me to write than pretty much anything else. Of course, for novels, narrative, description, and all of that fun stuff is just as important, so my biggest challenge has always been slowing down enough to be sure to write down just exactly how these things I’m seeing in my head actual look (since for some reason, readers aren’t yet able to see exactly what I’m seeing when I write without me actually writing descriptions…odd that).

Of course, when trying to write description, it’s important to have a clear picture of characters and places in your head. There are only so many times you can give a character blond/brown/red hair and blue/brown/green eyes before even your own characters begin to lose shape in your head. When asked a while ago what a character from a book I wrote years ago looked like, I admit even I couldn’t remember. Not generally a good sign.

So while some characters might spring to mind very clearly, what do you do when you come up to a roadblock as to what a character looks like other than tall/short/average with X hair and X eyes?

I’m sure there are a number of solutions people have come up with, but mine, personally, is simple: Look at peopleWhile the first things you might use to describe someone in real life might be the same things you already had for a character (height, weight, coloring) studying a face, a real face, will give you a better picture in your head as to what actually makes a person rather than a person-shaped blob (am I the only one with blobby characters to start with? maybe?)

As for finding faces for inspiration, there are three different ways to generally go about it:

1. Watch people around you. Assuming you don’t live in some remote cabin/underground/in the Australian outback, most people come into regular contact with other humans on a day-to-day basis. By watching the people you interact with, it’s possible to start compiling features that shape your character. The man at the bakery’s hair, the girl on the metro’s chin, looking at what makes a person unique will help you move past X hair and X eyes. Of course, the downside to this can be the creepy factor. Staring at someone next to you at the bank will no doubt make you look odd/suspicious. “I’m a writer” only works so many times as an excuse.

2. Look at celebrities. Since staring at people on the street can get you weird looks, a lot of my writer friends prefer this route. After all, you’re supposed to stare at TV and Movie stars for long chunks of time. Some writers even prefer to “cast” their novel as they go along (Jane would be played by Jennifer Lawrence, Sam by Ryan Reynolds, etc. etc.) By picturing the “movie” version of your novel, it makes it really simple get more about your characters than just hair and eye color (and can serve as some good motivation to keep going when you hit a crisis of confidence–who wouldn’t want to see their story on the big screen?). While I do use this tactic from time to time (one of the characters in my WIP would totally be Darren Criss in my head…) I personally find I still can’t use this solution that often. While you have more of a chance to study celebrities than people in your every day life, you also have more of a chance to get used to their personality (or at least the personality you see on camera). While you might not have meant it to be, basing a character off how Natalie Portman looks in Black Swan might end up giving you a character slightly more psychotic than you originally intended–simply because you start writing that character, not your own.

3. Use Google Image Search to look up headshots. And so we get to my personal favorite solution when it comes to finding faces for characters–using Google Images to look up pictures of random people. While you might still have a little bit of the creep factor (staring at random people online…? Okay…?) it isn’t quite as bad as staring at people on the street.  And while you can spend a long time studying the picture, you don’t also know who the person is and have that coloring your perception (added bonus, you can also find much more “average” people in these kinds of headshots than you can in Hollywood. Not everyone wants the “nerd” in their story to look like  Rachel Weisz in glasses). To use this method, you can just go to images.google.com, type in what you’re looking for (headshot girl red hair, headshot old man) and you will come up with pages of faces to look at without looking like a creep to anyone but the people at Google recording your searches (but if you’re a writer, they probably already think you’re a druggy serial killer based on those searches anyway, so who really cares?)

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