Describing a Scene Through the Eyes of a Character

Description by its nature stops the forward movement of story. No matter how beautifully executed the passage, no matter how well a writer engages the senses, description alone goes nowhere. To be dynamic, it has to be part of the physical movement of the plot or part of the development of the character. This is done by not just describing something, but by showing the effect on the character and how the character reacts.

In the 1980s, bookracks in grocery stores were full of gothic romances. Perhaps you remember seeing those covers: a brooding mansion in the background, a woman in a diaphanous gown running away from the house, looking back at it in fear. Despite their triteness, those were dynamic covers: the pictorial description of the house, the effect on the character (fear), and how the character reacted (running away.) Written description can be as vibrant as those covers; it just means taking the description a step further and filtering it through the senses of a character.

In this example from my novel More Deaths Than One, we get an impression of the hotel in Bangkok from Kerry’s reaction.

Bob opened his eyes, then squeezed them shut against the light. From the heaviness of the air and the brightness of the day, he presumed it was mid-morning. He opened his eyes again and this time managed to keep them open.

He turned his head toward Kerry. She lay on her back, hands behind her head, eyes focused on the ceiling. Following her gaze, he realized she was staring at one of the ubiquitous green lizards. Her body vibrated with excitement.

He smiled to himself. Leave it to Kerry to be thrilled with this small reminder they were no longer in Colorado.

“Isn’t this great?” she said in a hushed voice. “We have our own private watch lizard.”

Bob brushed away a fly buzzing around his head. “We could use a few more.”

Later, the description of the hotel becomes an integral part of the Bob’s worry.

The hotel was built around a courtyard accessible from all the rooms. Bob took his breakfast out to the courtyard, but couldn’t enjoy the fountain, the bushes, the flowers. He kept stealing glances at the windows, wondering if anyone was watching him.

When dark clouds rolled across the sky, pushing a stifling humidity before them, he took refuge in his room. It did not have air-conditioning, but the slowly revolving ceiling fan offered a modicum of relief.

He paced the floor, feeling as if he were a stranger in this land. It didn’t matter that he had lived here for sixteen years, he realized; any place would seem alien when he wasn’t with Kerry. She was his home.

He tried not to worry about her all alone on the streets, but as time passed, the worry grew too strong to ignore.

Then the rains fell. There was no light spattering gradually increasing in intensity as in Colorado, but an abrupt opening of the skies as if someone had turned on a spigot.

Because of the emotions evoked, the brief descriptions in no way stop the forward movement of the story.

Other posts you might be interested in:

Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way
Describing a Winter Scene
Describing a Winter Scene — Again
Describing a Winter Scene — Again. And Yet Again.
Describing the Nondescript

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

When Describing Your Characters, Don’t Forget Their Hands.

I’m not sure it’s true any more that a picture is worth a thousand words considering that a thousand words takes up only a few kilobytes of computer memory while a good high resolution picture takes up three to four megabytes. And anyway, it doesn’t take a thousand words to describe something so that it becomes real. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia.

Take hands for example. By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character. Hands can slap another character or caress a cheek, and such actions tell us about the relationship between the characters.

Here are a few examples of hands and what they do, taken from Light Bringer,.

The kid smoothed his neatly combed hair, swung his callused hands front to back as if he didn’t know what to do with them, then stuck them in his pockets.

Arthur Shillitani took his thin, long-fingered hands off the controls and slicked back his dark hair.

Rena studied her hands. . . . They were paler than usual, making the blue veins seem more prominent, and the nails were in need of a clipping, but otherwise they looked like the hands she’d lived with for the past thirty-seven years. What made them different from anyone else’s? What made her different?

Some examples from More Deaths Than One:

The staff sergeant was only 5’9” or 5’10”, but he had a powerful build with thick wrists, a massive chest, and hands that looked able to crush a larynx without any effort at all.

No one who crossed the threshold had the pampered arrogance of Evans’s men or the soft hands of a corporate drone.

The backs of his hands were crepey and mottled with age spots, but he seemed only about ten years older than Bob.

Kerry folded her hands primly in her lap, but her body seemed to vibrate with suppressed excitement.

And a couple of examples from Daughter Am I:

Mr. Browning shuffled through the papers on his massive black walnut desk. His age-mottled hands moved slowly, as if weighted by the six turquoise rings he wore.

Not hearing Happy, she looked back — he was heading her way, fumbling with his gun. He seemed to be trying to point it at the woods, but his hands shook so badly, the weapon wobbled all over the place.

So, when describing your character, don’t forget their hands. Hands make the character.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

All the Elements of “Daughter Am I” Meld into a Life-like Drama

I don’t often get fan mail, so when I do get a personal message, it really perks me up. And when I get a message like the following, it makes my day:

Hi Pat -

I have a confession to make, and this has nothing to do with the fact that you plan to read my book. No ulterior motives.

Normally I avoid buying/reading books by friends online because 80% of the time (a conservative figure) I find myself stuck with a real clunker, then feel frustrated as to what to “report” when the “writer” friend wants my opinion. I don’t like being dishonest but, you know how it is. Underwhelmed is one thing, but having to read a bumbling, disjointed, retch-worthy error-filled story resembling an eighth grader’s essay makes me nuts. So I tend to run the other way.

Discounting my modesty about my writing side, I will freely admit to being a terrific reader. No reason for shyness or modesty there. I know what I like and can tell the difference between the work of a hack and a real talent. Pat — you have talent.

I’m not sure why I broke my own “rule” when I bought Daughter Am I yesterday — but the book hasn’t disappointed me. It’s a great story. The characters are believable, identifiable, purposeful, & entertaining. The scene description is just enough — not undercooked or burnt to a crisp. And the plot moves, holds attention & makes the reader (me) anxious for more. You certainly understand how to make all elements of a story meld into a life-like drama. There you have it — my unsolicited opinion. I’m really impressed with Daughter Am I and thought I’d say so.

Have a great day.

These words brought tears to my eyes. That someone liked my book so much they felt compelled to write me was an unexpected and most gracious Christmas present.

Quite coincidentally, I am being interviewed on my publisher’s blog today about this very book. If you’d like to know more about the novel and its cast of entertaining characters, please click here: Interview With Pat Bertram, Author of “Daughter Am I”

All my books are available both in print and in ebook format, perfect for holiday gift giving. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. Smashwords is great! The books are available in all ebook formats, including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free! 

Do Blogs Need to Have a Single Topic?

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Most articles about blogging mention that you need to pick a topic for your blog and all your posts need to center on that topic. Is this really necessary? I suppose if you are a literary agent who sets himself up as an interpreter of the publication industry (explaining what one needs to do get published, for example), you’d need to stick to your topic, otherwise you’d lose your readers. Or if you are a marketing coach who is trolling for clients, it would be a good idea to stick to the topic at hand. But what about the rest of us? Specifically, what about us authors? Is it necessary for us to stick to a single topic? And if so, what should that topic be?

I have two fairly well-received blogs that are topic-oriented — Book Marketing Floozy, which is an indexed blog of book marketing tips and hints written by various authors, and Pat Bertram Introduces . . ., which is a blog for interviews with authors and their characters.  (Ahem! You know this because, of course, you have already submitted an interview, right?! If you haven’t yet submitted your interview, you can find the instructions and questions here: Author Questionnaire. I’ll be waiting for it!!)

I also have a third blog that isn’t as highly rated as those two, but it is rated (if an Alexa rating of 21,000,000 passes for a rating.) That third blog, Dragon My Feet, went through several metamorphoses from a blog to talk about all the things I did while procrastinating from writing (which I never used because when I was procrastinating from writing, I wasn’t even writing blog posts) to a blog highlighting excerpts from books as part of my ongoing effort to promote others while I learn to promote myself. You can find submission requirements for that blog here: Let me post your excerpt!

Which brings me to the blog at hand, the one you are reading, the point of the discussion. This blog started out as a place to talk about my efforts to get published, my efforts to get noticed once I was published, and what I learned along the way. I’d talk about reading and writing, and over the years I ended up with some pretty impressive views on some of my articles about writing.  “Describing a Winter Scene,” for example, has almost reached 10,000 views for that article alone, and it spawned a couple of other posts with good ratings: “Describing a Winter Scene — Again” and “Describing a Winter Scene — Again. And Yet Again.” And all of those winter scene articles descended from the grandmommy of them all: “Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way.” But continuing to write such articles would get boring after a while, both for me and my poor readers, most of whom know more about writing than I do!

Before boredom set in, Death intervened. Not my death, of course, but it was a significant event in my life nontheless, and so I started writing about grieving. Partly, I couldn’t think of anything else but my sorrow, and partly I got so furious at novelists who didn’t seem to understand the first thing about grief that I wanted to set the record straight. Well, I accomplished that to a certain extent, and now I have a book about my grief that will be published next year. So, in a way, all that talk about grief was still within the parameters of this blog — all part of writing.

But now I’m coming out of the worst of the fog. I’ve said most of what I wanted to say about grief and most of what I wanted to say about writing (I mean, how many articles about describing winter can one person write?) and now I’m at a crossroads. I’ve been talking about the various things I’ve been doing to put my life back together, such as “Halt and I’ll Shoot! (Adventures With Firearms)” and “Proving to Myself That I’m Real,” but eventually I’ll move beyond that, and then what? I’ll have to decide on a topic for this blog. Or do I? Is “life, writing, and the writing life” a specific enough topic? Is it better for an author to write about whatever catches his or her interest so readers (hypothetical though they may be) can better get to know you? Is it enough simply to blog?

Describing the Nondescript

Lately I’ve been coming across the word “nondescript” in novels. “Nondescript” is a perfectly ordinary word and shouldn’t raise my hackles, but it does. Most recently, I found this: “He caught a glimpse of a man running out of an alley, dressed like a local in nondescript clothes,” and what should have been a tense moment turned into one of cogitation. What are nondescript clothes? Since this story was taking place in Brazil, are Brazilian nondescript clothes the same as those in Thailand or Canada or the United States? Was he wearing baggy white cotton pants and a loose-fitting top?  Was he wearing jeans and a tee shirt? Shorts and a polo shirt? A suit and tie?

The author was a writer (not as much of an oxymoron as one might think since celebrity authors so often have someone else do their writing) and should have been able to come up with some way of describing the nondescript. Perhaps she could have said, “he was dressed like a local in loose white clothes.” Or she could have said, “He was dressed like a local in jeans and a bright-colored shirt.” Or he was dressed like a local in . . . well, no need to go on. You get the picture. Which is exactly the problem with “nondescript.” You don’t get a picture. You get a weasel word that fills space but gives you no idea of what to imagine.

I checked my manuscripts, and to my chagrin, I discovered I used “nondescript” twice. In Daughter Am I, I wrote, Mary glanced from Iron Sam to Tim then back at the road, goose bumps stippling her arms. How odd to think this nondescript bit of tarmac bound the three of them together. Actually, that’s not a bad use of nondescript, because how does one describe a stretch of tarmac on a interstate? Perhaps “ordinary” would have been a better word choice. Or perhaps I could have left off the adjective and just said, How odd to think this bit of tarmac bound the three of them together.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I wrote: The bartender, a lank-haired individual with grooves of discontent etched on his otherwise nondescript face, continued to polish a glass. Hmmm. There is a bit of an image here, but still, I could have found some bit of description for his face. Or maybe not. Faces do tend to blend one into the other. Still, “undistinguished” would have been a better word choice.

At least I got rid of “nondescript car.” My hero in More Deaths Than One bought an old beat-up Volkswagen, and I called it nondescript. At one time such a car might have been nondescript, but now? Yikes — such a car would have attracted attention. Better for him to have bought a white sedan that looked like half the cars on the road.

So, this is my point: if you’re a writer, rethink “nondescript.” I’m sure you can come up with a bit of description to show that the nondescript isn’t so nondescript after all.

On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

The Place is More Than Scenery

I am pleased to welcome Malcolm R. Campbell as a guest on this blog. Not only has he left myriad thoughtful comments on my posts, he has written one of my favorite books, a delightful mystery called Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. Though Jock Stewart is a throwback to the Hollywood’s film noir reporters, Campbell’s delight in words and wordplay shows through the hardbitten shell, and the novel has a gleeful undertone. If you are searching for a Christmas gift for a booklover, look no further.  You don’t have to take my word that this is a wonderful book, you can see for yourself. Click here to read: an excerpt, or the first chapter, or download 35% free at Smashwords. About scenery, Campbell writes:

“The breakout novelist does not merely set a scene; she unveils a unique place, one resonant with a sense of time, woven through with social threads and full of destinies the universe has in store for us all. She does not merely describe a setting, she builds a world. She then sets her characters free in that world to experience all it has to offer.” –Donald Maass, “Writing the Breakout Novel”

In his 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig said that he disliked traveling across country by car because the world outside the windows was too much like television. Pirsig preferred a motorcycle because it placed him solidly within the place as an engaged participant rather than a passive observer.

Young writers often focus on plot and characters, viewing the setting’s importance as minimal, a dated nineteenth century writing technique or filler to be skipped over in a modern novel. Their resulting fiction resembles a cheaply drawn animated film with talking characters in the foreground and sequence of meaningless doors, trees, and buildings scrolling past in an endless loop in the background—like the Pirsig’s unimportant scenery outside a car window.

Maass writes that “In the twenty-first century, we may have less patience for scenery, but we certainly expect a novel to show us the world as a vital force in which the characters move.”  The reality of this vital world is built on specific detail that goes beyond unsupported assertions such as “a grand old house” or “a lovely meadow” to the very heart of the place the characters willingly or unwillingly find themselves.

Place, like everything else in a story, is filtered through the character’s point of view. This makes it an interactive tool that engages all of the senses. It facilitates the creation of three-dimensional characters, a harmonious or counterpoint tone and mood, and a dynamic plot and action. Readers see, hear, touch, taste and feel only what the character perceives and believes about places. One character sees the forest as random trees, another knows their names. One character sees house as structures, another notices architectural styles. One character running from a pursuer finds a random boat and causes it to founder, another understands how to escape in it.

Detail supports assertions about the place, bringing an otherwise vague setting into three-dimensional authenticity. What–within the POV character’s knowledge and experience–makes the house grand and the meadow lovely? Symbolically, psychologically or empirically, place always tells the reader something about the character, plot and theme.

It’s a barometer indicating a character’s circumstances and attitude. For example, a snow-covered path is exciting during a sleigh ride but grim when one is lost in the woods. Frightened characters experience dark houses differently than confident characters. Same woods, same houses, different interpretations.

When place is utilized as a vital component in fiction, the characters experience, interpret and interact with settings like men or women on motorcycles rather than bored kids staring out the window of a car on a family vacation. Whether authors write about clean, well-lighted places or dank, dimly lit places, they’re not showing readers random backdrops. They’re showing worlds that mirror the characters’ moods and circumstances, worlds those characters must often navigate or fail to navigate en route to the climax of the story.

When readers hear the oak falling in the forest, feel the harsh limestone cliff below a mountain’s summit, and smell the dank stink of Cyprus swamp, then the setting has been well conjured, the spell properly cast, and the magic of enchantment into an imaginary world has been accomplished. At this moment, the novel’s world is more real than the reader’s comfortable chair.

See also: Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

A Two-Ton Ice Cream Cone

I am having an online discussion about description based on my article “An Image Fit Only For a Horror Movie.” We’ve been talking about simile and metaphor, and how to create vibrant images. As you know, I’m not fond of similes and metaphors, so I look for the significant detail, the one detail that will give the whole, such as crayon scribbles on a wall to show . . . well, whatever the reader thinks it shows.

Sometimes this significant detail transcends mere description and becomes a metaphor. One participant in the discussion is Bruce DeSilva,  the writing coach at The Associated Press in New York City, whose agent is shopping his first novel, a crime story set in Providence, R.I.  Bruce  told a wonderful story that immediately captured my attention. Bruce wrote: 

In my experience, the best images spring not from the imagination but from careful observation. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I went for a walk with a young reporter I was thinking of hiring. As we strolled through Times Square, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and said: “That’s amazing!”

What was? I didn’t see anything.

I watched as he whipped out his digital camera and started snapping pictures of a six-foot-tall, two-ton, concrete ice cream cone, painted up pretty, standing on the sidewalk in front of an ice cream parlor.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “What’s amazing about that?”

“Bruce,” he said, his tone indicating he was disappointed in me. “Look at it!”

“I’m looking,” I said, ” but I still don’t get it.”

“Bruce,” he said, “it’s chained to the wall. We live in a city where you have to chain a six-foot-tall, two-ton ice cream cone to a wall so no one will steal it.”

Well, yeah. That was amazing.

But how many millions of people, me included, had walked passed it without ever noticing the chain, or, more importantly, what the chain represented?

You don’t see the chain unless you are a careful observer, and it takes a poet’s sensibility to make the leap from the chain to what it represents.

We never did write a story that used the ice cream cone as a symbol of crime in our city — but we could have.

I hired the young man on the spot.

See? Significant detail and metaphor all rolled into one. If you are on Facebook and would like to participate in the discussion, feel free to stop by the Suspense/Thriller Writers group discussion.

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Describing a Winter Scene — Again. And Yet Again.

I was leafing through a poetry anthology the other day, looking for ideas for mini fiction (stories of exactly 100 words), when I chanced upon a wonderful description of a winter scene by Wallace Stevens from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

What a marvelous description. You get the feeling of where you are and what you are seeing from three simple lines. If you can find unusual details such as these for your description of a winter scene, and if you can write them as succinctly, you will satisfy both readers who like poetic descriptions and those who prefer brief descriptions.

Another few lines from the same work that describes a winter scene:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

I wish I had written “It was evening all afternoon.” I know I’ve been there and felt that, just never found the words.

One of my favorite haiku (favorite perhaps because it’s the only one I remember) is called November:

No sky at all
No earth at all
And still the snowflakes fall.

Beautiful and succinct.

So how do I describe a winter scene? I know I said not to expect me to tell you what I learned about winter from taking a walk, but what the heck. It’s certainly no secret. Since I look down at my feet so I don’t slip and fall, I saw lots of tire tracks.

These tractor tracks caught my eye. Beautiful and perfect in their own way. Now if I can evoke an entire world from a short description of these tracks, I will be on my way to becoming a master wordsmith.

Luckily for me, though, my WIP takes place in the summer.

Other bloggeries that might be of interest:
Describing a Winter Scene
Describing a Winter Scene — Again
A Short and Witty Photographic Ditty (Footprints in the snow.)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writing to the Extremes

It is not necessarily true that a picture is worth a thousand words. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia. By writing to the extremes (the extremities, I mean) we can bring our characters to life in a new way.

In The Blue Nowhere, Jeffery Deaver tells us about Wyatt Gillette, a computer wizard, by focusing our attention on Gillette’s hands. Gillette has thick yellow calluses on the tips of his muscular fingers, and even when Gillette is not at a computer, his fingers move constantly as if typing on an invisible keyboard. I know somewhere in the novel Deaver described Gillette, but did he really need to? Don’t we get a feeling for the character from those two significant details?

By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character.

And don’t forget fingers and toes. What is there to say about toes? Think about a woman who wears severe suits and a severe hairstyle but paints her toenails crimson. That contradiction makes us want to know more about her. Or think about a man with a mincing walk stemming from shoes so small they pinch his toes.

Do you remember to use the extremities in your novels? How do you use them? What ways can you use them, but don’t? Can you think of ways to describe characters by their extremities alone? What gestures or mannerisms can define characters? What gestures or mannerisms can characters use that may be fresh and not trite? (For example, restless feet can denote lying, or a desire to be somewhere else, or boredom.) What other example can you think of (or have already written) where a character’s extremities play a significant role? Is it better for the extremities to match the character or contradict it? Shoes are a significant fact of life; how do shoes figure into your novel?

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