I’m a one for making lists. I make lists on top of lists because my brain is the equivalent of Swiss cheese.
You know…the hardcore staples that keep a black-hearted editor running. A shopping list isn’t meant to convey emotion (other than deciding how many bottles of tequila are required), so you put the bare minimum into your list. Just the facts, ma’am.
What you want to avoid is allowing that shopping list into your writing. And believe me, it sneaks in a lot without you even being aware of it. Take character appearances, for example. Your mind’s eye has Jane as a brunette, long wavy hair, and big brown eyes. She’s about 5’4″, average build, with the knobbiest knees this side of the Rockies. She’s wearing a brown sweater over black pants and matching black belt with knee-high boots. And that is exactly how you write it.
You snoozing off yet? I am. Unfortunately, I see a lot. For starters, is it absolutely necessary to describe them in full detail? If not, then leave something to the reader’s imagination. If you’re hellbent to describe them, then let it out in dribs and drabs. Don’t knock us over the head with a blow-by-blow description of their eyes, weight, hairstyle, clothing, blah, blah, blah.
Reveal the shopping list of characteristics slowly by peppering them inside those multifunctional dialog tags.
She glared at him through icy blue eyes. “You realize you ate the last Twinkie, don’t you? Now I have to kill you.”
If Jack had an Achille’s heel, it was a woman with thick blond hair. One look at Ann, and he knew he was toast.
“You think just because you have eyes the color coal and shoulders that could balance my entire lunch tray, that I’m going to melt into a puddle at those boats you call feet?”
His height was a genetic offering from his father’s side of the family.
The thing you want to avoid is overkill, and that’s what shopping lists do. Readers don’t need the complete lowdown of a character’s appearance that includes the number of folds under someone’s chin, or the number of buttons on their shirt.
The Shopping List doesn’t dedicate itself to character descriptions. Oh noooo….they insinuate themselves into the narrative as well, and yield boring results.
The beagle felt like she was going to die. She’d spent the entire day answering phones. She also filed. All she wanted was a nap. She could have used a margarita, too. Her boss, Overworked and Underpaid Editor didn’t understand. She was a slave driver.
You could easily turn these into bullet points and create a nice dull little shopping list. Nothing pulls the reader in because it lacks voice, emotion, or finesse. Here it is again:
The beagle had spent the entire day answering the phones and filing, and felt like she was going to die. More than anything, she needed a margarita and a nap, but her boss, Overworked and Underpaid Editor, was a slave driver with the personality of a lima bean. What’s worse, is the woman had sworn off booze. The beagle couldn’t help but wonder what self-respecting editor gives up a healthy margarita or chocolate martini? Nothing worse than a teetotaler boss.
Shopping lists are a bit of a cop out. Anyone can take a conglomeration of sentences and slap them into a paragraph. It takes talent to weave the important elements of your character’s appearance into the narrative or dialog, or to write a darn good bunch of paragraphs that transition nicely into each other.
And speaking of those little transitional sentences, I’ve noticed that a collection of sentences (a shopping list), invariably lacks good transitional sentences that slide seamlessly into the next paragraph because there isn’t anything connecting the dots. A shopping list is usually made up of items that share no comment thread. The result is a choppy, gooey mess.
Write smart, and I guarantee that you won’t bore your readers…and your editor will dance on barroom tables and sing with glee. Or is that just me?