Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Herding Characters To and Fro

Straight out of college I worked as a staff editor for a small publishing company. We put out a bimonthly women's magazine, which usually had a short fiction feature. One thing I remember being a major pain in editing those stories was how an author (who was often just dipping her toe into fiction writing) felt the need to explain everything her character was doing.

For example:
Mary got up from the breakfast table, opened the front door, and walked down her sidewalk, admiring the new pansies. She reached her mailbox and opened it but found nothing but bills. She walked back up the sidewalk to her house....

Unless Mary met the love of her life on that sidewalk or encountered a dead body, it's not necessary to put all that information in there. Yes, there is a certain amount of setting that is needed to ground a character, but sometimes less is more. Often a few brushstrokes are all that is needed to convey an action. 

Example: Mary checked her mail. Bills, again.

I'm especially sensitive to this at the moment because I'm eyeball deep in editing my novel. To my horror, I'm guilty as well. For example, consider this passage where I'm trying to describe my main character entering an old library:

A plain wooden door with no handle was open. Ana walked through it into a small vestibule that had another glass door that she pushed through.

Frankly, that's pretty clunky and doesn't make a lot of sense. Trying again:

Ana pushed open the wooden door and found herself in a small vestibule.

Not terrific but certainly easier to read. The reason the first take was so convoluted was because I had an actual library in my head and envisioned how Ana would walk into it. But I need to be careful that I'm not insulting my reader. They know that to get into a room you have to walk into it. I don't have to spell that out for them every single time. 

I'm curious if other writers run into this also? What are your fixes?


  1. Wonderful post, Lisa! I totally agree. We tend to over-describe. I'm seeing this a lot in the contest I'm judging. But you're right, we tend to find examples in our own work--and it's definitely something to be aware of as we self-edit.

  2. Thanks, Jody! I can only imagine in contest judging how often it comes up. In self-editing, I've started a list of words I tend to use over and over again to describe something - especially "walking," "walked," or "walk" - and did a Find on them in Word. That's a real (and scary) eye opener! :)

  3. Good post! I know all to well the tendency to over-describe (both in poetry and prose) as well. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I "tell" too much in poetry. I guess it's a balance :)

  4. Catherine- It's definitely a balancing act of what can be told and what should be shown while still moving things along. With every draft, I learn more, I hope. :)

  5. It's something I've had to watch on occasion too. I think we all have our moments were we get a little overly descriptive. ;)

  6. I definitely do it more when I'm "in the zone" and just trying to get the words down.

  7. I'm guilty of too much description! I read a novel once that over described and it drove me nuts. I tend to fix this during rewrites.

  8. I remember seeing this a lot when I was in general creative writing classes and even now in a writing group I'm in, many people who haven't been writing long, or don't write often do this to the point that I can't read their story!
    I'm sure I'm guilty of it from time to time too but I try to be very conscious of it when I'm writing because I know how much it bothers me to read it.
    I think sometimes, depending on the character/pov and what's going on, you need all the action but that's very rare.