Writing Tip Tuesday Chapter 2: Over-Describing Clothing
I’ve sure you’ve come across a story at one point (or maybe even written one) where the clothing is over-described. Don’t get me wrong; telling me what your character is wearing can be a good and even helpful thing. But telling me every single detail about an outfit I don’t really care about . . . yeah, not so much.
“Today Tara wore a pink silk blouse with ruffles on the edges. She had a brown belt with gems on it and a pair of skinny jeans. Her backpack was her usual purple leather bag she took to school every day. She wore her new fusha lip gloss and had applied minimum makeup–she didn’t want to look too girly! For the final touch, she added a white flower clip into her dark brown hair. Perfect!”
(Apologies for that paragraph, even though it was only an example, as fashion isn’t my thing.)
Okay . . . what? Here’s one of the most important things in a story: Why should the reader care? Why should I care if Tara wears a pink blouse or a blue one? Why is this important to the story? Too often, these paragraphs aren’t important.
These kinds of descriptions in a story can be very detrimental. They make the reader bored, which is the worst possible thing you could do. I don’t know about you, but every time I reach one of these paragraphs, I completely skip over it. Guess what? I never seem to miss anything. The clothing never comes up again, and I don’t care. It doesn’t help me picture the character any better, anyway. A pair of skinny jeans or a pair of sweatpants won’t drastically change the character’s image in my mind.
Here’s a question for you: How often do you go around describing yourself? Have you ever walked up to someone and said, “I have dark brown hair and blue eyes!” or even said that to yourself in a mirror? Probably not. Physical descriptions in a story are tricky, particularly in first person. You’ve got to find clever ways to insert them in. Instead of:
“I have wavy golden blonde hair.”
Try something like:
“‘Hey, Goldilocks,’ Alfred teased me as I walked up. I twirled a strand of hair around my finger and bit my lip. I hated that nickname.”
See the difference? Notice how in the second example, I never even told you her hair was blonde. You still pictured it that way, right? The name “Goldilocks” kinda gives it away. Clever tricks like that can keep your stories fresh and the image alive in your reader’s mind.
Now, we’re talking about clothing, not hair. Still, the same principle applies. Be sneaky about how you describe it. (And remember that mirrors can be too cliche.)
“‘I’m not a nerd,’ I whispered.
“‘You sure look like one!’ Blake hissed. ‘What’s up with the glasses and striped shirts? You just crawl away from a geek festival?’
Most importantly, don’t talk about your character’s clothes unless it’s a) important to the story or b) reveals character. To make things easier, I’ll show you b) first. I’m going to use an example from one of my stories, a Mighty Med fanfiction called Losing Control:
“Less than five minutes later, the two boys had taken their seats in the class, waiting for Ms. Reese to begin the lesson. The health teacher was a middle-aged woman with a too-tight brown bun on the top of her head and large glasses that could probably be seen from New Jersey. She wore the same black skirt every day, but Oliver didn’t think he had ever seen her wear the same blouse twice. Today, he noticed, it was light blue with green lace on the collar.”
Notice how I showed you who Ms. Reese was through her clothing. You probably got an image of the teacher-type, right? Also, now you’re curious about her character. Why does she only wear one skirt? Why doesn’t she ever wear the same blouse twice? It’s not important to the story necessarily, but it shows you who Ms. Reese is. A small detail or two won’t make your reader mad; just be sure to control yourself.
So, how do you use clothing in a story? Well, let’s use another example. (How I adore those!) Let’s say that they’re a boy in a post-apocalyptic world who comes to a sad-looking town. Let’s say this boy is wearing a bright orange jacket. As he walks down the center of the city, he’s stopped a policeman. “Orange isn’t allowed here, little boy,” the officer sneers. “Wearing the color is a crime punishable by death.” (Why is wearing orange punishable by death? I don’t know. Maybe the old mayor got killed when an orange fell on his head. These townsfolk are just mean!)
The guard offers him a choice: Surrender his coat and move freely along, or be arrested and possibly killed for his “crime.” Easy choice, right?
Now suppose the coat was made by the boy’s mother. It was the last thing she gave him before she died. It’s his only connection to her. This coat has kept him warm on many lonely nights, and sometimes when he buries his face real deep into the fabric, he can smell his mother’s perfume lingering there.
Hmm, this is getting interesting, isn’t it? Not only do you know that this boy wears a bright orange coat everywhere he goes, you know why it’s important and you’ve seen it create conflict. Of course the boy doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t want to give up his coat either. That’s the power of a piece of clothing.
In fact, clothing–and especially jewelry–can be a powerful tool in a story. A special uniform distinguishes the members of a sect. A locket is given to a child by his grandmother. (Though, this one’s a bit cliche.) Those ridiculous skinny jeans a character always insists on wearing cause her to trip and fall while trying to escape the villain.
The problem is that I’ve seen clothing thrown around too carelessly. Your readers aren’t stupid; they (hopefully) won’t picture your characters naked. They’ll slap on clothing in their mental image, and they won’t even pay attention to it. So unless it’s really important, leave it out.
If you ever catch yourself writing a massive paragraph about a character’s outfit, stop and ask yourself: “Is this really important to the story or the development of my character? Will the readers enjoy this, or will it bore them? How can I describe it cleverly without drawing too much attention to the clothing itself?”
This one isn’t always easy to master. However, make sure you don’t go too far the other way. Don’t stop describing clothing altogether. It can be extremely important. It can be hard to tell when to use and when not to use it. Here are a few cases where describing clothing can be a good thing:
- When you want to make the setting clear (tunics in ancient Rome, kimonos in Japan, or stiff collars and dresses in the 19th century)
- If they show a certain aspect of your character (they only wear the color black, they love a certain band and wear their shirts all the time, or they dress like their parents are rich . . . because they are)
- When it could cause conflict (a dress gets caught on a branch, a too-tight shoe causes one to trip, or an evil man is after a child’s jeweled necklace)
- When it has sentimental value (a locket given to them by a dying parent, a jacket that has kept them warm through dozens of blizzards, or the only pair of shoes they’ve ever received)
I’m sure there are more examples, but those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
In short, be careful about how you describe clothing. Too much will leave your readers bored. Not enough will make them worried they missed something. It’s a delicate balance, and one that can only be maintained by constantly asking, “Does this really help the story along?”