Danger Zone

Polly entered her living room and stopped to study the familiar surroundings. She gazed at the colourful floral wallpaper, a veritable garden growing on the walls, complete with dancing blue and yellow butterflies. The drapes at the double windows that looked out onto the wide front porch needed to be changed, she thought moodily. They were looking a bit shabby. The polished hardwood floors shone in the sunlight. A vase of irises, both purple and yellow, graced the cocktail table in front of the sofa. Sitting on the sofa were the two police officers who’d come to see her, right where the housekeeper had left them.

They stood up as she came closer, holding their hats in their hands. The younger officer shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the sound of his shoe leather making scuff-scuff sounds against the wooden floor. The older officer cleared his throat and rubbed one hand across the top of his crew-cut head. Then he drummed his fingers against the brim of his hat.

“Mrs. Jones. I regret to inform you that your husband was in a car wreck and is deceased.” The officer’s mouth pulled down at the corners, and his eyes reflected the gravity of his news. He rubbed the side of his nose with his thumb and ducked his head slightly.

Polly cocked her head, placed one hand on her heart, fluttered her eyelashes, and whispered, “Are you sure?” She moved her hand from her heart to her forehead. Her shoulders drooped, and her knees sagged.


Okay, I’ll stop there. What’s wrong with that section of writing? I’ve stayed all in one point of view, kept everything in one tense. But something is still wrong. A couple of somethings,in fact, though they’re related

I’ve indulged in overwriting. Too much description at entirely the wrong time. Polly (and this is in her POV) wouldn’t spend any time looking at her wallpaper if there were two cops waiting to speak to her. She knows this room. All she would see as she came into the room would be the new thing: the two police officers.

The other form of overwriting I’m guilty of in this section is telling every movement, every twitch, every facial expression that my characters make. Trust your readers a bit; let them work with you to fill in some details, some of the actions.

Also consider whether or not we need any of those descriptions. Do we need to know that the wallpaper is floral with butterflies? If so, tell us, but choose the right time. The right time is not when the POV character’s attention should be elsewhere.

Here’s one time a character might stop and stare at his surroundings.

K’lorg landed with a thud, still crouched in a defensive posture, sword half-raised in one hand, shield on the other arm lifted to protect his face and throat. What was this place? Where was the foul Nemishman he’d been dueling? The gravel of the battlefield had been replaced by some hard, shining substance. Bright flowering plants climbed the sides of the box he was in. Keeping an eye open for enemies in this strange place, K’lorg reached out a hand to touch the bright plants. He jerked back. Flat! Not plants. Just pictures of plants. Long strips of cloth hung from rods on either side of openings in the box. A long bench stood against one wall. K’lorg sniffed the air. He smelled food. The Wizard of Karth had sent him time-traveling again, this time to the oddest place he’d ever been. Muttering curses against the Wizard and all his kin, K’lorg followed the scent of food.

Well, that wasn’t very good, I suppose, but perhaps you get the point. K’lorg has never seen Polly’s living room – or any living room – so he’ll notice these things, though he won’t have the language to describe them very well.

Long story short: Don’t give too many details too quickly or at the wrong time. Don’t telegraph every eyebrow twitch your characters make. It slows down the action and tends to make you seem unsure of yourself. A reader wants to know she’s in safe, confident hands.

Write like you mean it. Bad grammar but good advice. Smile