Some of the first things new writers are told is to write what you know, and to show, and not tell. Russian playwright and author Anton Checkhov is credited with having said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” underscoring the latter. Showing can be a powerful tool when used with discretion, but all too often new authors forget to do this, preferring instead to paint their word pictures with broad strokes rather than choose a finer brush.
I’ve often written about how writing is a construct, something artificial made to seem real. Everything authors do, from creating and recreating setting, penning plot, and/or developing character and dialogue is not real. Everything about any given scene is there for a purpose; the trick is to add them subtly so they seem happenstance .
One mistake many new authors make is in how to express the physical appearance of a character. Having the character stand in front of a mirror and take stock, making note of his or her own hair and eye colour, and the shape of his or her jaw, lips, and nose doesn’t work. How many times have you looked in the mirror and taken stock? When I look in the mirror, the bow of my eyebrow is only important to me if it’s time to get a waxing. I notice my eye colour if my clothes make them pop. I may make note of my hair colour, but only if it’s time for a dye job.
Here’s another mistake. When I flip my hair back from my face, I don’t think that my hair is brown with red highlights as I’m doing so. I might be cognizant of the fact that I’m flipping too many times in a day and am due for a cut. I might get frustrated and sweep it back into a ponytail, but I don’t take note of the colour. Your characters shouldn’t either.
When you get into your car to go to work in the morning, do you take time to contemplate that it’s a 2010 slate grey, four-door Toyota Camry? Isn’t it more likely you might think that it’s a beater, or that it’s nearly half-a-decade old and still looks like new? Might you think it needs a wash? Would you rub at a patch of dirt to make sure it wasn’t a scratch? Be annoyed that the neighbourhood kids wrote “Wash Me!” with their finger on the trunk again?
If I describe the car, my reader will know a lot about the make and model of the car, but little about the driver. If I get into the driver’s head and show what he’s thinking, I’m building character. If my reader drives a middle-age Camry, s/he might find a small point of identification with my character. If I show my character as either taking pride in the car or neglecting it, I’ve given my reader a more precise point of connection.
The next time you show detail, consider narrative viewpoint. If you describe something your character wouldn’t normally see, think or hear, then change tack. For example, if I smile, I can’t see my white teeth gleam in the sunlight. I might feel my cheeks ache, the cold air I let in when I part my lips might hurt my overly-sensitive teeth, or I can imagine I must look like a grinning idiot (but I can’t know for sure).
Never forget your job as a writer is to construct an immersive version of reality. Paint your word pictures with fine detail, and texture with character, dialogue and setting, using only the palette colours limited by your narrative point of view.
Have you noticed these errors in the books you’re reading? Maybe you’ve made some of these errors yourself? Share your experiences in the comments below!