Common Writing Mistakes
With Dr. Robert Runte
Common Writing Mistakes # 4
Automatic Physical Description
Another problem I see a lot is the mistaken belief that one needs to provide a detailed physical description of every character that crosses the page, no matter how minor. Beginning authors seem particularly focused on eye and hair color. Here’s the thing: no one cares. No one ever said, “Hey, I bought this great book: it’s protagonist had blue eyes. Can you believe that?! It was so great to see that in a book!”
There are three problems with providing too much physical description of characters (and to some extent, of settings).
First, timing. Beginning authors often feel they have to provide the character’s appearance immediately upon that character’s initial entrance. There is certainly a logic to that, but then what one often gets is expository lump right in the middle of what is supposed to be an action scene. Say an assassin jumps out at our hero: if the author feels compelled to provide a detailed description of what the killer looks like, then instead of the rapid
pace of swordplay, gun fire or fisticuffs, the story comes to a complete standstill while we are briefed on disheveled hair, wild eyes, rumpled suit, and so on down to the shoelaces. Interesting as all of this might be, it is less relevant and compelling then the fact the individual in question is trying to kill the viewpoint character.
When police try to debrief an incident, for example, the witnesses are often hard pressed to identify their assailant’s hair and eye color and height and so on because their attention was pretty much focused on the fact that they were being assaulted. (Sometimes they remember their was a knife, but the description is usually about and six inches bigger than it actually was.) In the heat of the moment, eye color is pretty far down the list of what people notice; so the reader won’t really notice its absence either, if the writer provides sufficient action. What the reader will notice is that description replaced action; that the action ground to an unexpected halt at the precise moment the author should have been building tension.