Is that God in the details or a crazed writer?

For a few months my step-mother encouraged people to believe my step-sister and I were twins. The matching outfits she bought for us were key. I remember the green, floral print mini-dresses with spaghetti straps and bolero jackets, the white jumpsuits with specks of color splattered all over, and the maroon pantsuits with white trim. N. and I hated dressing alike. N. rolled her eyes whenever anyone said, “Are they twins?” I looked at my feet.

my step-sister and I feed ribs to the cats--1977
my step-sister and I feed ribs to the cats--1977

The first day we wore the maroon suits, my step-mother took us to Tampa to go shopping. Shopping in a real city was a big deal. A two hour drive there and a city restaurant too! I might have been to Tampa once before–when my mother was temporarily committed–but I had no memory of that.

Tampa! Such 11-year-old girl excitement.

Then I got dressed in the maroon pantsuit.

We weren’t on Interstate 4 yet when the itching started. First, I spit in my hand and rubbed it under my collar thinking that would work. The itching spread. By the time we were 30 minutes from home my skin was red everywhere the fabric touched. I curled up in the backseat (no seatbelts required) and scratched.

“I think we should take her home,” N. said, folding back my sleeve to look at my shoulder.

My step-mother glanced in the backseat and sighed. “I’m not driving all the home. She’ll be fine.” She returned her attention to the highway. “Just don’t scratch. Jesus, I don’t get to go anywhere.”

I don’t remember shopping and I don’t remember eating, but the sky was gray that morning and the trees we passed were pine. Bumps ran up and down my body and the baking-soda bath I took when we got home after dark was cool.

There are two cats in the picture. One we named Whitefoot. He was killed when I startled him and he bolted into the road in front of a neighbor’s orange VW Beetle convertible. There were whitecaps on the lake and the floor-length curtains I hid behind felt rough on my face.

Description in my fiction makes me curse. I don’t want to be too flowery or too spare. Readers tell me–I don’t know what this character looks like. I can’t picture the room. I stare at the page and wonder where to put these details that don’t trip up my pacing or screw the point-of-view. Maybe it is the way I read. Character descriptions rarely stick in my head unless it is something remarkable or odd–a wooden leg or a scar on the forehead or hair long enough to reach the ground from a tower window. Often I end up thinking a character had brown hair when the writer clearly stated his hair was blonde. Or whatever.

How much description do you want in a story?

6 thoughts on “Is that God in the details or a crazed writer?

  1. When readers complain about description, they are confessing to curiosity. When readers are curious, they are in a state between tension and suspense, which is where you want the to be. It is better to give them just enough detail so that they have to work to get the picture you already have. If you give them too much, they’ll complain and start skipping to the good parts, where things happen. A curious reader is better than a sated or bored reader.

    I once had hair that reached to the ground from a tower window, but I got over it.

  2. Yes, it is tricky striking a balance… I try not to be too conscious about this when writing, just filling in what “feels right” at the time and then during revision filling in blanks if that seems necessary, or erasing details when it doesn’t.

    (I refuse to go back and look for it, but oh God, I just know there’s a stereotypical passage early in my first book in which the protagonist stops before a mirror, allowing the author to digress for a paragraph or two about the color of her eyebrows, the shape of her nose, and so on. [shuddering at the recollection])

    Sometimes a detail can as you say be telling enough to be really worth mentioning not per se, but because it says something subtle about the character or the situation. In your vignette above, does it really “matter” that the pantsuit is maroon — or for that matter that it’s a pantsuit instead of a sweater or dress? No, of course not, the action plays out the way it plays out. Yet the color does make a difference: turning it to lime-green or bright yellow or navy changes the reader’s “feel” of the experience. Ditto pantsuit-vs-dress (or whatever).

    And leaving out the description radically changes the feel. If the narrator had simply started to itch, broken out in a rash, with no corresponding visual, the experience just would not stick in the reader’s head. You might as well be playing with stick figures.

  3. You know. I find with all this reading I do online that I make pictures in our head around the personalities, even without a description. I always have a picture of the blogger I’m reading in my head, even when they don’t describe themselves at all. And then I’m shocked to see what they actually look like. šŸ™‚ I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to let characters and rooms talk for themselves.

  4. Hmmm, how much description…..let’s see, somewhere between the unabridged and the abridged version of Les Miserables. I have read both, and somewhere in the middle would have been just about right!

  5. That’s a great question and something I struggle with too, so I’m not sure I am any help. I do like some description. Just enough to give me the flavor of the setting and who the person is. I am always in awe of writers who do this so perfectly. I don’t think I’m there yet – I like to write description because it’s the easiest thing for me to do. I am horrible at writing conflict because I always avoid it in real life.

  6. Shelly, glad to know we can eventually get over our hair.

    JES, details, details… Hey even stick figures can change depending on the ink (pencil?) and the paper.

    MPJ, I’m with you on the picture in the head thing. That happens to me a lot with radio journalists. I’m always surprised to see what they really look like.

    D’Arcy, I’ll aim for that!

    Shelli, I don’t think you’re horrible at writing conflict.

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