Why keep Character Description To A Minimum in Your Opening

May 25, 2013

If you’ve written an opening for a character it’s not always wise to start your story with only description. That can be a bit boring – like looking at a still-life painting, or out the car window at a building you’re approaching. It’s static.

Writing out a description of your MC usually has very little movement to it. Plus, the most common thing that novices do is step away from the scene while they’re telling their readers about the colour of someone’s hair, or the clothes that they wear. If you’re going to tell us about those things, make them do double duty by reflecting either the character’s state of being, or the tone you’re trying to get across in your narrative voice.

Gus Sanchez commented recently:

I like to keep descriptions about people’s physical appearances to a minimum, unless there’s something about their physical appearance that drives their character or motivation…. I would rather picture this character on my own terms, and let the author tell me more about the character’s motivations than what color their socks are.


About The Idea Of Keeping Character Description To A Minimum.

Rethinking your opening gives the reader actions your characters make. Writing ‘in-scene’ from your opening line, “Joey gripped his bb-gun and watched the fog of his breath rise in the early morning chill.” is better than “Joey stood, dressed in camo and a bright orange vest” type of opening.

One shows how those actions reflect your characters’ motivations, reactions, or emotions right from the beginning. Your word choice is storytelling from the very beginning:

Gripped = nerves?  Rise = hope? Chill = dread?

In the line-up of smart writing elements, description is rather low. Action for description, or action’s sake, ( Joey stood…) isn’t even top of the go-to list over Action with word choices, that convey motivations, reactions, or emotions.


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 Here’s another example,

Let’s suppose Tim’s a character who’ve you’ve outlined as someone whose actions are rough and menacing. Forgo the guy’s physical description unless you can use it to show us this roughness via his motivation and reactions. Do this by asking questions – How would someone hiding his anger act? What motion does someone make who is trying not to yell, and fails?

Then any movement Tim makes are doing double duty to show is this violence or his suppression of it.

If Julie’s written up on your character outline as nervous, battered, or wary. Knowing her hair colour won’t show much of that side of her to us, at least not the bits we want to know about.

If you write an opening ‘in-scene’ to show us those traits via her emotions, then your word choices for the movements Julie make as she cringes away from the sound of Tim’s voice can then do double duty to show is this hesitancy in Julie’s character. And the menace in Tim’s.

This is why if you are going to describe your characters right from the start – your descriptions can go so much deepr than a physical one.

Paint a picture with the intangibles too.


4 Responses to “Why keep Character Description To A Minimum in Your Opening”

  1. kanundra Says:

    Reblogged this on Kanundra's Blog and commented:
    Excellent information. Nice one… For any of my followers. EJ’s coaching will be the best thing you’ve ever tried. And will improve your writing, even if you’re already a pro! 🙂

  2. Moderator Says:

    Honestly, this might save the opening of my novel. I get so stuck on describing the person it removes the entire scene.

    • ejrunyon Says:

      Remember, that I edit by the page, at a low, easy to work with rates. (I understand ‘starving writers’) Check out some of my other posts.Then, if you want to send me a chapter to edit or coach you on, please do. The work we do together might jump-start the entire rest of your novel for you.

  3. Dalek Luna Says:

    I usually wind up saying things like “she swept aside her long black hair as she ran from the site of the explosion” and whatnot. I don’t linger on descriptions though.

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