Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as vulnerable to telling rather than showing:
1. Telling what happened before the story began
2. Telling what a character looks like
3. Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)
In my experience, there are two standard signposts of telling when it comes to descriptions, senses, and emotions:
Character WAS adjective. (Ned was handsome.)
Character FELT adjective. (Charlotte felt tired.)
This time, we’re going to look at character descriptions.
If I write Ned was handsome, what does “handsome” mean? According to dictionary.com: “having an attractive, well-proportioned, and imposing appearance suggestive of health and strength; good-looking.”
As match.com and eHarmony would tell you, “attractive” means different things to different people. As regular readers know, I’m a huge proponent of using what I’ve coined Real World Templates for my characters when I write (for background on what this means, check out my series Be Your Own Casting Director). As a visually oriented person, I like to read physical descriptions of characters. I also like to describe my characters—probably too much.
In this day and age when the standard for fiction is to write with a limited POV—1st person or 3rd person limited (in the head of only one character for a scene)—describing what the character looks like is tricky. In 3rd person, it’s a little easier because you can “see” your characters from someone else’s POV. In limited POV, you can only show what your POV character sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, and experiences. Now, most of us grew up reading YA fiction. In YA—at least from more than ten or fifteen years ago—it was not at all unusual to find out what the POV character looks like when she stands in front of a mirror and sees all the details of her appearance. But, I doubt even YA writers are allowed to do this any more. You also do not want your character to come across as egotistical by thinking about her gorgeous, thick, long blonde hair. Or his stunningly light blue eyes. So, how do we incorporate character description in a way that shows that feels natural?
You can involve another character who can ask questions like, “Since when have you been dying your hair red?” which could lead to a conversation about why your character colored his hair and how he feels about his physical appearance—keeping in mind it cannot just be an “empty” conversation to convey information. Every scene must move the story forward.
Here’s an example of the “mirror, mirror” description style from Amanda by Candice F. Ransome (a YA romance published in 1984):
Stooping slightly, Amanda caught her wavy reflection in the looking glass hanging over the heavy maple bureau. She noted automatically her smooth, pale skin and her eyes, golden-green and fringed with long black lashes. But her hair! Dark brown, waist-length, and naturally curly, it had always been heavy and unmanageable. Sometimes it took her half the morning to coax it into the required chignon. . . .
Just like all of the character’s backstory should not be revealed in the first chapter, you do not have to fully describe your character in the first chapter. In Susan May Warren’s Happily Ever After (Tyndale, 2003), she slips in character description almost unnoticed:
“The house is in rough shape, Mona, rougher than I thought. You have a lot of work ahead of you to be ready by tourist season.”
Mona flexed her arm. “I’ve got Norwegian blood in me!”
Chuck smirked. “That you do . . .”
While this doesn’t give an actual physical description of Mona, it gives the reader a hint of what she probably looks like—blonde and fair, and physically fit, since she’s indicating she’s strong enough to take on a house remodel project.
In Along Came Jones (Multnomah, 2003), Linda Windsor employs a similar technique. She also weaves in descriptive phrases that start building the image of the heroine (while the heroine is “seeing” the hero for the first time) through the action of the first chapter (the aftermath of a car accident):
- city born marketing exec (she’s cosmopolitan, usually polished, probably very concerned with her appearance)
- her companion swept her off her feet (she’s probably slender)
- “Manetti,” Deanna ventured. “Deanna Manetti.” (She’s Italian. Like the statement above, this gives the reader a general direction to start visualizing this character—dark hair, olive-toned skin, dark eyes.)
- Fourteen years since she got her driver’s license in New York City . . . (So, she’s probably between thirty and thirty-five, depending on the legal driving age in NY.)
- she sought the stirrups with the toes of her kiltied pumps. (A specific kind of shoe—she dresses not in sexy stilettos but in tailored loafer-like pumps)
Let’s see if the beginning of Stand-In Groom passes the “showing” test:
- Her right heel skidded on the slate-like tile and she wobbled, her foot sliding half out of the black mule. Anne hated shoes that didn’t stay on her foot of their own accord, but they were fashionable.
- Walking through the packed restaurant behind the slender, petite young woman, Anne tried not to feel self-conscious. At nearly six feet tall and doing well to keep herself fitting into a size 18, she hated to imagine what others thought when they compared her to someone like this little hostess—five foot four-ish with a waist so small she could probably wear Anne’s gold filigree anklet as a belt. When working, Anne rarely thought about her stature or size. In public, though, all the comments and teasing she’d received when she’d reached her full height at age thirteen rushed back into her memory. If only she’d had some athletic ability, she might have been popular and not fallen for a man who’d strung her along until he didn’t need her anymore.
- This was the third time Jenn had set Anne up on a blind date and the third time it hadn’t worked out. Jenn had a habit of setting Anne up with men of Jenn’s taste, rather than Anne’s type. At five foot six, Jenn didn’t have to worry about towering over her dates. Five inches taller, however, Anne wanted to date someone who was at least six feet tall so she didn’t feel like quite such an Amazon beside him. But it seemed like tall, single Christian men over the age of thirty were hard to come by.
Okay, maybe a bit more telling than showing—but at least now I know what I need to work on! Next time, we’ll look at describing our characters from someone else’s point of view. But now it’s your turn for some Show and Tell—pull out some descriptions from your first chapter to share with us and define for us whether you think they “show” or “tell” what your character looks like.
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