by Kimberly Peticolas
Thanksgiving is just days away, and Black Friday is soon to follow. We all know the joys and dangers of these holidays. Every year, we look forward to the mega-feast that is Thanksgiving and the shopping free-for-all that Black Friday has become. I am as guilty as the next gal . . . maybe more so. I do love a good deal!
But there is a lesson in these holidays that we can apply to our writing. When eating that feast, we all know it is important to not eat to the point of bursting, to refrain from overindulging in just one more piece of pie if we can help it. As for Black Friday, we have all learned that sometimes it’s best to just pass up that great deal if it doesn’t fit in our budget—even if it is a great deal. These same lessons are important for writers, especially new writers.
I’m speaking specifically about descriptions and the overuse of adjectives in particular. It is so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to tell your reader exactly what your character looks like, how they act, and all the fine points of their personality. You get a three-course meal with eight kinds of pie at the end, when you really only needed one. Same thing for the scenery and the events that take place. I get it—you want your reader to instantly love your characters as much as you do. But, there is a great saying creative writing teachers everywhere seem to use: “Show, don’t tell.” And yet, that is exactly what many writers still do.
Details and Minutia
New writers tend to overindulge in the details and minutia. They want you to feast with them in the glory of their creation. And as fun as that can sometimes be, there is always pain the next day. Editors are very familiar with this pain. We have long discussions about it with each other. We debate on how to break it to an author that their precious book—their pride and joy, their genius—needs to be cut, sometimes significantly. Authors can be touchy creatures and get very attached to their words. They can become unwilling to change so much as a comma. It falls to the editor to show authors that sometimes their writing just isn’t reaching their audience the way it needs to. Let me tell you, it isn’t always easy.
Stop the Pie-Fest
So, how do you tighten your belt and stop the pie-fest/shopping spree? Show, don’t tell. Instead of describing each and every detail immediately, pick a few especially important details to use in the initial description and then plan out when those other details you want the reader to know should appear. Maybe it’s in an off-handed comment by another character, or a thought the character has. Maybe a couple can be revealed in a stressful situation, or in a moment of reflection. Make sure that your reader learns a little bit more about the character each chapter, be it a physical trait, a personality quirk, or some other trait. Select different ways for each trait to be shared: narration, dialogue, situational, or maybe even save it for the sequel. This same technique can be applied to scenery and events as well as characters.
I also always advise the writers I work with to read everything out loud. It is very helpful to hear what you have written and pare it down to the essentials. It also helps with flow and tone. Most of all, it helps you remember that what you are describing is not static. You are not describing a photo of a moment in time. You are describing an active person/event/landscape that is changing as your story progresses. Take your reader on the journey with you, don’t just give them snapshots.
It all comes down to the core idea that you want to hook your reader. You need to develop an emotional connection with the reader and make them feel like they have gotten to know a character over time and become friends with them. When was the last time someone came up to you, gave a litany of their traits and accomplishments, and left you thinking they were your new best friend? I’m betting it hasn’t happened. If it has, I want to hear that story! Friendships just don’t develop over a resume, they need time to grow.