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Descriptive Detail in Novel-Writing Part 2

carly-cantor-book-manuscript-line-editorby Carly Cantor

Read Part 1 of this article.

The other really important task that narrative details accomplish is to help with characterization. Well-chosen descriptive details give clues to the personality of the characters and help you follow the golden rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Thus, it might be fitting to describe the plunging neckline and peekaboo black-lace bra of a character who is flirtatious; the oversized, well-worn brown polyester pants of a character who is down on his luck; the buttoned-up black-and-white houndstooth wool jacket of an uptight character who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But don’t then go on to describe the outfit of every character who appears in the story, including that of the waitress, the gas station attendant, and the receptionist at the doctor’s office. Be selective. Choose what’s important. Don’t describe just for the sake of describing.

When the narration is coming through the point-of-view of a character (as opposed to an omniscient narrator), the choice of details should tell the reader something about what this narrator-character tends to notice and thus what he or she feels is important. Be careful to choose details that are in character for the narrator. A hard-boiled PI interviewing a suspect will notice the kinds of details that might help him assess a person’s culpability: demeanor, eye contact, mood, etc. A vain teenaged girl will focus on people’s clothing and hairstyles because that’s what she cares about. Whenever there is a PoV switch (ideally, from chapter to chapter, not within a chapter), there should be a change in style, vocabulary, perhaps even grammar for each narrator, and also a focus on different sort of details. If every character provides the same sort of descriptions, readers will not really experience the PoV as different and unique.

In the next article, we’ll focus on how to work details into a narrative in a way that comes across as natural and organic to the story.

(To be continued.)

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