I’m lucky enough to teach Intro and Intermediate Writing the Short Story at Lighthouse. I’ve been teaching for over 10 years now, and one weakness I continually see (including in my writing) is the lack of descriptions. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, quick and concise descriptions bring your writing to life and move your story forward. The more specific we are, the better.
When we hear we need stronger character descriptions, we tend to go overboard and create hulking paragraphs that describe but don’t really tell us anything important about a character. We don’t need the police report description. Many of the best descriptions don’t focus on how a character looks, but something essential about that character’s personality.
As Ron Carlson says in his book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story: “The body is a charmed and potent field that has been well traveled by the jillion writers before us … a good fiction writer is creating her own conventions…The attributes you give the body should play a part in the story and not feel like furniture we need to lug along.” Of course you can describe what your characters look like, but how are you going to do it in a way that tells us about those characters? If you do, you’ll give the reader enough material to fill in the blanks, and then we’ll be involved in the world of your story and ready to go wherever you want to lead us.
So try my exercise and see what you create. What do you have to lose except for a thin character? Take a story/essay/novel you’ve been working on and write as many sentences as you can in five-minutes. Don’t worry about creating good descriptions; just try to honestly describe your characters. Surprise yourself.
1) For the first five minutes, write sentences about your primary character.
2) The next five minutes, write sentences about your secondary character.
3) Last five minutes, write sentences about a minor character. Don’t have one? Time to make one up. Let your story/essay have a sense of the larger world. Minor characters can help our stories and essays breathe and let our main characters interact in surprising ways. Sometimes a narrow story focus can create a thin read.
For inspiration, the following are some of my favorite short story examples of quick descriptions. (And yes, I realize some of these are more than one sentence. The focus isn’t on using just one sentence, but instead making quick descriptions that don’t meander for a paragraph and weigh your story down.) Take some time to find the descriptions you want to imitate in your favorite books, stories, and essays.
Examples from “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek:
- “There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn’t seem to notice, as long as she wasn’t hearing English.”
- “Kate and I would sometimes meet after work at the Pilsen, dressed in our proper business clothes and still feeling both a little self-conscious and glamorous, as if we were imposters wearing disguises.”
- “The waiters in the Pilsen wore short black jackets over long white aprons. They were old men from the old country.”
Examples from “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham:
- “Carlton believes in shocks.”
- “I nod, I never think of lying to him.”
- “I lean into Carlton’s certainty as if it gave off heat.”
- “Her nerves run through this house. She [their mother] can feel dust settling on the tabletops, milk starting to turn in the refrigerator.”
- “She is a small, efficient woman who looks at things as if they give off a painful light… She is trying to overcome her habit of modest expectations.”
- “He treats her as if she were harmless, and so she is… She suffers him the way farm girls suffer a thieving cow, with a grudge so old it borders on reverence.”
- “I have always figured I can bluff my way into wisdom.”
- “He is a formerly handsome man. His face has been worn down by too much patience.”
- “Their friends, schoolteachers all, bring wine jugs and guitars. They are Ohio hip. Though they hold jobs and meet mortgages, they think of themselves as independent spirits on a spying mission.”
- “She comes from New York and is more than just locally smart… She walks through that room as if she’d been sent to teach the whole party a lesson.”
- “Something about our father leads me to raise my voice… If he senses he’s being avoided, he can fall into fits of apology more terrifying than our mother’s rages.”
Some examples from “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri:
- “She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.”
- He ran his tongue over the tops of his teeth; he’d forgotten to brush them that morning. It wasn’t the first time.”
- “He would open his eyes and see the long black hairs she shed on her pillow and think of her, dressed, sipping her third cup of coffee already, in her office downtown, where she searched for typographical errors in textbooks and marked them, in a code she had once explained to him, with an assortment of colored pencils.”
- “It was typical of her. She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad.”