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On Pacing: Beware Excess Character Description

pacing-beware-excess-character-descriptionKeep your story moving by recognizing when too much information (TMI) is weighing down the action

by Marie Valentine, editor

It’s easy to get sucked into overwriting the details of a character’s physical appearance. Most writers like to describe, which is why we write: detailing people is fun. But we need to rein it in at times to keep the story going.

Describing someone’s style, wardrobe, and identifying characteristics can be a useful method to keep characters separate. Signature features become a shorthand calling card for a character’s personality type and so forth. Where would Bella Swan be without the spell cast by her beloved vampire Edward’s piercing ochre eyes? (This being a descriptor that was used often by the author—maybe too often?—when mentioning the undead lad in the hyperpopular Twilight series).

Consider this hypothetical character description:

Tonya was a slim four-foot-eleven-inch woman. She had gold hair and blue-green eyes. Her skin was freckled with moles and she wore a black pair of flats that matched her black capris. Her floral print top was a variety o pastel colors mixed together. She had a couple bobby pins holding back her bangs, and she wore a light layer of makeup. Her pale pink lipstick was perfectly applied, and she bit her lip as she stood digging in her enormous black leather handbag, looking for something.

So what? We don’t need to know her measurements. The specifics might help someone create a mental picture. But most readers are savvy enough to fill in the details if you provide a general outline. For the sake of pacing, I urge writers to limit extensive descriptors in order to get to the heart of the story. Most stories run on the character’s motives, not their shade of lip color or lackadaisical hairdo.

Did we as readers learn much about this woman’s role in the story? It’s a little bit like a catalog description of a person. Until this woman takes action, nothing compelling has been related about her. It would be better to introduce her quickly, focusing on one or two key characteristics, and get her interacting in the story right away so we can get a sense of her personality and role.

Tonya dug in her enormous handbag that made her petite frame seem even tinier. She rustled through the purse with growing impatience, shoving til she found the needful item: her smartphone. She thumbtyped her passcode quickly and slid the screen open to the call log, redialing the number that had just been buzzing her over and over.

—Who is this? Why are you calling me? She demanded.

Heavy breathing on the other end was pierced by shrieking in the background.

—Tonya, it’s me Lorie! I need your help—

The line cut out as Tonya was disconnected from her sister’s sobs.

See how pacing picks up with a little more action and a little less description?

Follow the links below for more posts on keeping the story moving.

Superspecific Settings Are Not Needed

Avoid TMI in Plot

Don’t Do Dead-end Dialogue

Marie Valentine is a professional editor of fiction and nonfiction. She happens to enjoy vampire fiction.

To get on Marie’s editorial calendar, please request her by name through this form.


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