Writing Tip: You’re Not in a Nudist Colony

Image result for images of silly nudists

One of the things I was asked about during yesterday’s “webinar” (on-line seminar) was certain pitfalls to avoid when writing fiction.

One of the pitfalls we discussed was to avoid burdening the reader with information that he doesn’t need. In most cases, that will include whatever clothing the character in a scene happens to be wearing.

There are times when you will want to describe that clothing: like, when it sheds some light on the character’s character, or when it has a bearing on the plot. Examples: 98-pound Willie Weasel wears a “Death Before Dishonor” biker’s T-shirt, even though he doesn’t have a motorcycle and faints if he nicks himself shaving. That such a man wears such a T-shirt tells you something about his character. Or, Cadence Cabong habitually wears really pointy high heels, which leads to her falling off the ladder she must climb.

In most cases, though, you don’t have to tell the reader what everybody’s wearing in a given scene. The reader’s own imagination will clothe them while you get on with the story. Unless you tell him otherwise, the reader will not assume your characters are all members of a nudist colony.

Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery, and other famous works) once advised aspiring writers not to bother describing to their readers the wrist watch that each character was wearing. If you do that, she warned, the reader will begin to suspect that the writer is “queer for wrist watches.”

It takes skill and experience to decide correctly how much detail to give the reader at any juncture of the story. Don’t look for a lot of complicated ways to describe exactly how a character changes a light bulb. “She changed the light bulb” will suffice. You’d be amazed by how much detail you can leave out because the reader will supply it out of his own imagination.

Just don’t leave out too much.

13 comments on “Writing Tip: You’re Not in a Nudist Colony

  1. Yep, those stories that go on and on about such details just bore and tire the reader and add nothing of substance.

  2. A book I started to read but had to put down had way too many references to product brands. The first time I encountered it in the story I just overlooked it and kept on reading. But after several pages into the story I found myself beginning to keep track of these product brands rather than following the story. I think I began to wonder more as to why the writer kept referencing these brand names. Was he getting paid to advertise or something. Anyway, I never finished the book. I don’t even remember the title or the name of the author.

    1. I first came across this many years ago, in Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” At the time, it seemed a way of making the story more realistic. I wonder if the writer you mention was clumsily trying to imitate this technique without understanding it.

  3. And please for the love of everything good, don’t describe your characters as having alabaster skin or cerulean eyes!

    Ahem.

    You’re totally right. And I think it’s the little, smartly placed details, that will stick in a reader’s mind more than a shopping list of all the stuff they’re wearing.

  4. Now I read “Rosemary’s Baby” but I don’t remember the brand referencing. I was probably so scared out of wits as I read THAT book. My sister inadvertently scared the snot out of me as I read. Mom sent her upstairs to tell me it’s supper time and her gentle tap on my shoulder was not what I was expecting. I jumped up suddenly and screamed! I really don’t remember that other book I mentioned but perhaps they were trying to mimic “Rosemary’s Baby”

    1. I was alone in the house one night, reading “The Exorcist” for the first time… and my iguana jumped onto my shoulder from behind. You can imagine my reaction.

    2. Marge, reading your comment was like reading the beginning of a short story. I believe you have a talent for writing.

      PS: That short reply about “precise” was meant for Prof. Duigan – please disregard.

  5. There are a series of books which are basically a history of the postwar America sports car racing scene in the fifties as observed by a fictional character. The stories are compelling and you find yourself caring about the characters almost from the first paragraph. Unfortunately, the author belabors every description and feels compelled to repeat the entire description every single time we pass that place or meet that character. It was rough, but I got through it.

    The sequel to the series was unreadable in my estimation.

  6. One of my favorite writers is Ken Follett – very descriptive writing such that I still can see clearly the scenes he described. It was the way he described them – not focusing on any one thing but painting a complete and alive portrait of the scenes, using just a few well-chosen descriptive words.

    1. I learned a lot about this by reading Eiji Yoshikawa (in translation, of course). He made a scene come to life by adding unexpected details: like the sound of insects in the trees, the smell of water plants, etc. But not the precise heights and weights and apparel of the characters!

Leave a Reply