A Little Dab Will Do Ya

GUEST POST FRIDAY. Read what writer Jennifer Slattery has to say about the details of characterization.

I must have a very short, easily distractible attention span. Hand me a
newspaper and I’ll have it read in ten minutes. Jennifer-read, that is. Which
means I’ll skim the headlines, maybe glance at a few paragraph headings, check
out the photos and captions, and call it good.  Then I let my imagination
take care of the rest. I find the images and scenarios created in my mind are
much more entertaining than the real life version. When I read a book, even
more so. I don’t want to be given every detail of the forest as the heroine
hikes through it. I want to be given just enough to allow me to relive the
forest I hiked through as a child, or the forest I’ve always dreamed of
visiting. Basically, I want my imagination to be sparked, not dumped on.

A while back I was given a book to review slammed with details. Lots of
details. Every character was described, even the ones I met in passing, and
most of them were given very unusual traits. Seriously? Does every character
have an eagle like nose or elf ears and some sort of unusual gait? Honestly, I
started envisioning a side show and not the small town environment the author
tried to portray. And I did a lot of skimming. It’s pretty sad when you can
skip large portions of a novel and still follow the story. Luckily the book got
better as I continued, but honestly, if I hadn’t been reading it for a review
site, I probably would have tossed it aside after page two.

This is especially true in regard to characters. I’m not sure how other
writers do it, but characters fill my imagination long before they make it to
the page. I imagine my readers are similar. After reading a few details, and
seeing my characters in action, their minds have already formed a visual. As
writers, our goal, then, is to give enough details to trigger images, then
leave the rest to the imagination.

Knowing our details should be used purposefully ought to motivate us to
choose those that evoke strong, or telling, images. For example, if my heroine
is hiking through the forest and I want to convey a sense of peace or solitude,
I might focus on a gently flowing stream or a Blue Jay resting on a nearby
branch. If, however, my heroine is frightened, or lost, I’ll focus on the
shadows caused by thickly clustered trees and the thorny, intertwining
blackberry bushes blocking the partially hidden trail.

The same goes for characterization. If my character is snootty and
superficial, I may focus on her nail polish, jewelry, or hair style. You would
be surprised how many other details your reader will fill in, especially if
descriptive dialogue and emotive action is added. Show them a lady with long,
painted nails and four-inch heels–ah, you’re already picturing her, aren’t you?
Okay, what if I add bleached blonde hair with black roots? A slightly different
picture, perhaps? How about a woman with long, painted nails with hair swept
back in a French roll? Given those details, do you really need to hear about
her pants, blouse, and purse or has your mind already filled in the rest?

And yet, at the same time, lack of details can sap the imagination just as
quickly as an overabundance of them can. One afternoon I read someone’s work in
progress about a man who had fallen on some ledge that led him to a secret
passage. The author provided very little detail, and often in such general
terms, images weren’t evoked. I heard there were jewels and stairs–in much that
way. What kind of jewels? What type of stone? The best piece of advice I
received in regard to details came from Ane Muligan, editor at Novel Rockets.
She said, always name it. Don’t say a pleasant smell. Name the smell. Don’t say
a tree. Name it. Oak? Elm? Palm?

Why don’t you try it? Use details to help the reader paint a picture,
instead of painting the picture for them. I know you all like photographs, but
I’m not going to provide one. I’d rather you provide one for me!
Using your words. And remember, our visual image will be sparked by action,
description, and dialogue. Use all three to trigger (not overpower) the
reader’s imagination.

First: An old man at the barber shop. That’s all I’m going to say.

Second: A teen girl at a county fair.

Add your story as a comment. I can’t wait to take an imagination vacation
with you!

Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband of sixteen years and their

Jennifer Slattery

fourteen year old daughter. She lives in her head most of the time, but when visiting the real world, she likes to run, bike ride, and take long, romantic walks with her forever-love. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, the Christian Pulse and Samie Sisters and is the marketing manager for the literary website, Clash of the Titles. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, E-zines, and compilation books and has saturated the web many times over and placed in numerous contests. Now she uses her contest-winning skills to help other authors take their manuscripts from good to great. Find out more about her services at http://wordsthatkeep.wordpress.com and catch a devo or two at her personal blog, http://jenniferslatterylivesoutloud.com.

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About lynnegentry

Wife. Mother. Writer. Acting Coach. Director of Dallas International Performing Arts Academy.
This entry was posted in Characterization and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Little Dab Will Do Ya

  1. Julie Marx says:

    Good info! Thanks for posting.

  2. garmonjulie says:

    Good stuff! Thanks, Lynne and Jennifer. I met you last year at ACFW, Jennifer. Hope to see you again soon!

  3. Lynne Gentry says:

    To the Julies, thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re detailing those characters until they shine! 🙂

  4. Lynne, thanks so much for having me on your blog!

    And Julie, I won’t make it this fall, but hopefully next year! It would be great to see you again, too.

    To the other Julie, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Now that I’ve talked about an example that used details ineffectively, I’d like to point out a novel that used them well. Loved River Rising by Athol Dickson. The details he provides are powerful and necessary. His writing allowed me to visualize clearly something I’d never encountered and he did it in a way that drew me deeper into the story.

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