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  • Writer's pictureRachel Paige

Get Their Attention

I mentioned in this post that people don't describe things they see every day. So if you have to describe your narrator's house or best friend (or your narrator) you need to be sneaky.

If you just describe everything as it shows up you're going to drag the pace, especially at the opening when new places and people show up the most. Sometimes slowing the pace is good, but not at the beginning. Plus, when is the last time you thought about what your bedroom looks like? If you told a story in real life, you wouldn't say "I was in my room, which has green carpet and sunflowers painted on the bookshelf..." Even though those are interesting details worth mentioning (which I also talked about previously), it's clunky.

How do you sneak in description?

One way is to have the character interact with who or what you're describing. Not by saying they sat on the end of their light blue bed; that's just throwing colors around. Is the blue calming after a hard day? Or maybe the soft mattress and blue sheets make the character feel like she's sitting on a cloud?

Do something to make them notice. Have the tapestry on the living room wall fall down. Give their best friend a haircut. Glasses can fall off or get smudged. Short characters can struggle to reach something and tall characters can duck under things. Long hair gets tangled in backpack zippers and jingly jewelry becomes obvious in quiet rooms. Furniture moves. Things break. Dirty clothes can be stepped over and full dresser drawers don't always close.

Or maybe they notice because they're thinking or daydreaming.

Ever been in deep thought and realized you're staring at someone across the room? Use that and have your character describe the person when they realize they're staring. Or they could stare at an item and describe it to break up their thoughts. I have one scene in which Olivia alternates between a paragraph of internal monologue to a paragraph of describing what books are on the shelf in front of her. (I picked books that characterize the people who live there, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago).

Another way is to have a new character make the narrator look at the room with fresh eyes. I have two characters, Evie and Juliet, who each describe their own bedroom when the other sees it for the first time. They mention what the other would notice. Evie says "the off-white walls are bare except for a clock and a couple drawings" and "the only thing out of place is the collection of cat toys Artemis hides under the bed." When they're in Juliet's room, Juliet mentions that Evie's room is "only slightly more colorful than a prison cell" then says in her own room "all the furniture is painted different colors of neon, and the dark purple walls are coated in dream catchers, paintings, and tapestries. Much of that is also neon."

Evie wouldn't typically think about her bare walls and Juliet wouldn't usually think about all the neon, because they're used to it. They noticed because someone who wasn't used to it was there.

I used this same tactic to describe Juliet. Describing narrators is particularly tricky, especially if you don't want to resort to the clichéd looking in the mirror while they get ready for the day. I had Juliet pause the first time she met Evie and let Evie take in her plethora of neon clothing and odd jewelry. She thought about it because Evie was looking.

You can also describe a narrator is by comparing them to another character. I'll give a couple examples.

In Chaos in G Major, when Olivia meets her real parents and sister, I described them, her, and her brother, Sam, all at once. Olivia says her parents were both "kinda tall, and neither had blond hair. Or blue eyes. I studied their faces, trying to find myself or Sam in them, but I couldn’t." After that, Olivia says Juliet (their sister and the character mentioned above) has "curly brown hair, the same color and texture as her mom’s." And later, "Juliet rolled her eyes. They were brown like her parents’. No blue."

In my other novel, Definitions of Life, my twelve-year-old narrator, Megan, says her best friend could do better than the guy she's dating because she's really pretty. Then she describes Kelly and herself through a comparison. "[Kelly] has brown eyes, like me, but her mom lets her wear mascara. She has longish, straight brown hair, also like me, but she can do French braids and stuff, all I can do is a ponytail. She also has her ears pierced and her nail polish is never chipped and always matches her outfit."

Being sneaky doesn't slow the pace and usually gives insight into the character doing the describing. Double the value of your words. Don't make characters stop to describe things they don't think about. Instead, give them a reason to think about the things they see every day.


Do you have any tricks you'd add to this list? What makes you notice things you've become accustomed to?

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