The Laundry List

In the last post, I briefly touched on the laundry list. Let’s explore this a bit further.

What is a laundry list? It can literally be a list of adjectives you use to describe a person, place or thing. For example:

He was tall, but not overly so, with a lean, hungry look to his handsome, rugged face that peeked out from the long, black locks hanging down past his shoulders.

Yes, I’ve seen sentences like this. It leaves you breathless, and not in a good way. Don’t be afraid to break up your sentences!

Now, I’m going to take it a step further. Laundry lists can also be descriptions that break up the flow of the story. Let’s say the main character has just noticed her arch enemy enter the gym on prom night:

Pam stood in the doorway, glittering in the flashing lights. Her red sequined gown trailed in the back, but revealed her shapely legs in the front. The bodice was cut dangerously low, trimmed with just enough black lace to almost be considered decent. The tight waistline cinched her body in like a wasp. Her matching heels had to be at least five inches tall. To add to her height, she’d piled her hair on top of her head in a golden tower. Her makeup was perfect, bringing out her pouty lips and drama queen eyes that were already warning of the storm to come.

While that may be interesting to someone who’s really into fashion, it brings the story flow to a screeching halt while we all stop to admire Pam’s dress. If her outfit is important (maybe it is), break it up in the scene. Add bits here and there. Maybe as she approaches the main character, let’s call her Lucy, her towering height is intimidating because of the hairdo and her heels, which might make her wobble a bit (hey, a bit of humor never hurts). Maybe Lucy’s handbag gets snagged on one of those sparkly sequins when Pam leans in to threaten her, you never know. The important part is to make it part of the scene and only add the bits that make the scene interesting.

I’ve read manuscripts that had passages that stopped everything whenever the main character met someone new for a complete description of the new person including their height, weight, hair color, and what they were wearing. They even included what the main character thought of them as a potential bed partner. None of this was relevant to the scene at hand and wasn’t particularly interesting. Save all that for your character sheets! If it fits in the story, add it when, and only when, it fits!

Speaking of character sheets, they come in handy for stuff like this. They help you keep your details straight, like a character’s physical attributes, their attitudes, family  history, what they’re wearing in particular scenes, and so on. J. K. Rowling had reams full of character sheets on every single character in Harry Potter, even some that didn’t make it into the books. This work isn’t wasted. You can even write letters to yourself from the character’s point of view to get inside their heads. Try it. It may help flesh them out.

This is another in a series of posts inspired by this marvelous post at Writer Unboxed.