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Perspective (or, Don’t Tell Me a Closet’s Too Small)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Doesn’t matter which writing conference, seminar, or workshop you go to. It’s almost guaranteed whoever’s teaching is, someway or another, going to mention the idea of “showing” not “telling” in your writing. It’s one of the topics I mention most when trying to get most writing concepts across—especially when I’m judging contest entries by unpublished writers.

One of the areas of writing which is more prone to telling rather than showing is when it comes to setting details. (I’ve already discussed this when it comes to describing characters here and here.)

In a post in the Stir Up Your Setting series, I mentioned that, just as having a character stand in front of a mirror and do a top to bottom description of her physical appearance is a huge no-no, having a character walk into a set and “case the joint” is a no-no. It’s important to weave details of the setting in through the character’s actions and the flow of the scene, not just give it as a telling info dump at the beginning of the scene and figure that will suffice for “setting.”

This point was brought vividly home to me yesterday as I sat at the computer working on some busy-work-type stuff (yes, even those of us who are self-employed have the occasional busy work) with HGTV on in the background looping episodes of House Hunters. A young couple moving to Denver were looking for a house with at least 2,000 square feet, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and plenty of storage. First house they went to was relatively new, which meant the kind of house with a huge master bedroom, spa-like master bathroom, and a walk-in closet.

When I first moved to Nashville, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that had a very large master bedroom as well as a huge walk-in closet—large enough that what I considered to be a large quantity of clothes didn’t even fill the rack on one side of it, and that was with my chest of drawers in there, along with everything else I owned that needed to be stored in a closet. After a year of discovering that I hated living in an apartment complex, I moved into a duplex in a residential neighborhood—a 1940s GI-Bill cracker-box house that hadn’t been overly large before it had been split down the middle into two dwellings. I was fortunate to have good attic space there—with a boarded floor—for storage, which was good, because the closets weren’t overly large. Then, in 2004, I moved a block away into a house—a stand-alone, share-no-walls-with-anyone house. Which meant more storage space because it was bigger, right?

Wrong. In this house, even though I have a hall closet in addition to a linen closet in the bathroom, I have less storage space because I have small closets and an unusable attic. Over the past five and a half years, I’ve considerably pared down the amount of stuff I own—and even still, I have old bookcases in my bedroom I use for storing clothes and sheets and purses and other items I have no room for in my tiny closets.

So when this couple on HGTV stepped into what looked to be about a 6′ x 8′ walk-in closet, my immediate thought was, I wish I had a huge closet like that! The first words out of the female house hunter’s mouth? “Wow, this is a small closet.”

Which, of course, made me start thinking about writing (as pretty much everything does) and why specificity is important—because without specific details, we’re leaving a lot up to the reader’s perspective. And if their perspective is different than ours, they may not truly “get” what we’re writing about.

I could write something like this:

      Jennie stared at the interior of the closet, aghast. How could she be expected to live with so little storage space?

What does that tell us about the closet? About Jennie?

How about this:

      Jennie stepped into the closet, aghast. Though it extended the full length of the bedroom, the walk-in was so narrow, she could have lain in the floor and touched the side walls with tiptoes and fingertips. How could she be expected to live with so little storage space?


      Jennie opened the closet door. “Why are all the clothes hanging diagonally?”
      . . . . .“Uh . . .” The real estate agent reached around her and wiggled a few items. “Looks like the coat hangers are deeper than the closet is from front-to-back.”
      . . . . .She crouched low and reached her arm into the dark corner beyond the open door—and jammed her fingers when they reached the side wall in short order. Not even wide enough for her to straighten her elbow. How could she be expected to live with so little storage space?

See how using specific details tells us something about Jennie without my actually telling you about Jennie? And how it tells something about the size/age of a house without telling it’s a newer home or an older home, one that likely has quite a bit of square footage versus one that doesn’t?

Of course, as with everything in writing, there’s a balance needed. Sometimes, you do just need a quick description if it really isn’t that important to the story/character.

      Jennie stuck her head into the closet in the master bedroom. Though smaller than the walk-in she had in the apartment, it would be adequate. With only two days left to figure out where to live, she couldn’t be overly choosy.

How much detail do you like to see in books? Are there times when you wish the author would give you more or less description/specifics?

  1. Jess permalink
    Monday, April 12, 2010 11:31 am

    Our closets are so small that most of my clothes are in the hall closet. When I get some money, I’m going to sell my dresser and buy a bunch of those IKEA wardrobes. Much more space-friendly
    Thanks for that last paragraph. I once had a critiquer write “telling” when I said, “The clouds moved away from the sun.” What was I supposed to write? “The wind blew the water vapor westward through the atmosphere…”
    But then, having a critiquer who’s “too vigilant” is kind of like having a friend who makes you laugh “too much.”


  2. Monday, April 12, 2010 5:05 pm

    I actually saw that episode! My first thought when those words came out of her mouth was how spoiled she sounded. (We’re all like that in some way, I guess.)

    Details are helpful — especially when they uncover the character or personality of a person in some unexpected way. You gave some perfect examples!


  3. Monday, April 12, 2010 5:15 pm

    Being a fantasy writer, I love description and find wonderful ways to build a story in the ‘details’. You are certainly correct about keeping it in the right perspective and allowing the pov character to show us their world.

    One of my pet peeves in my genre is when a main character shows us the amazing, fantasy aspects of their world from what would be OUR (human) perspective. Those towering trees and vermillion skies should not be ‘amazing’ to him/her–any more so than we would devote much thought to the oak in the front yard, or the sky being blue. As you mentioned, a matter of perspective.

    Thank you for another wonderful entry. Words for thought.


  4. Tuesday, April 13, 2010 1:19 am

    This post was great! Thanks for the illustrations that I could relate to so well. What you said about the reader’s perspective was excellent. Sometimes cliche works to help the reader “get it” with out having to elaborate on everything, but as you said so much is interpreted strictly through the imagination of the reader. That’s when writers really need to work. I like to read detail about landscapes, home interiors, and costume. But I don’t like it when an author elaborates on things that are so mundane that I skip over. And too many times I see authors repeating what they just said, but in a different way. Tell me something new. Make it vivid. And sprinkle it throughout the book like tasteful seasoning. If it works to bring the scene to life it’s good.


  5. Amee permalink
    Tuesday, April 13, 2010 1:55 pm

    I like lots of description, especially when it’s a room. I have trouble picturing the layouts of houses and buildings so telling me exactly where everything is makes it easier for the picture to form in my mind.

    The only thing I dislike is when the description comes too late. Don’t tell me ten pages in the character has brown hair because more likely I already pictured blond hair. Or don’t suddenly throw in facial hair 50 pages in. It throws me and is always a distraction when it’s mentioned later in the book again because since it wasn’t in the beginning, I didn’t alter my view of the character when it was mentioned on page 50. I guess this is the tricky part since, like you said, the mirror description is a bit of a no-no. However, it is pointless to give me description past the first couple of pages because I’ll never be able to change what I saw in my mind from the beginning, but that could just be my own weird reading quirk.


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