Monday, October 11, 2010

Snapshot Sentences

Photograph by Idea-Listic.
Some of the coolest descriptions of characters come from cop novels. 

As a fan of Dashiell Hammett, John Sandford, and Michael Conelley I marvel at how they describe both the personality and look of a character in one sentence snapshots. 

These guys don't use descriptions like: Eyes like crystalline glass...or raven hair that fell in a wave...bleh!

They are masters of the the snapshot describe a person, a scene, an idea.  This make all of the rest of their long prose paragraphs, melancholy musings, and clipped action all seem to tie together.

For example, in The Poet, Michael Connelly describes his dead brother's partner, a detective named Wexler, like this:

Wexler was built like a small bull, powerful but squat.

You get the image of a man squeezed into a detectives shirt and tie, the muscles and power, but no finesse.  All that from a few words.

Connelly also describes a scene, a macbre one, where a crime scene photo shows a man who'd shot himself in the head leaning back in the carseat.  Connelly doesn't get graphic or even detailed. He uses one sentence and its chilling:

Blood had worked its way like a thick necklace around his neck from the back and then down over the sweater.

No description of color, consistency, splatter, or gore...just a snapshot image. A powerful one.

My absolute favorite cop drama author, John Sandford who writes the Lucas Davenport "Prey" novels is wonderful at introducing characters. Lucas, a former street cop, has a lot of that wry suspicion that comes out when he assesses someone.

In Broken Prey, Sandford introduces a character like this:

He was short, big nosed, red haired, pugnacious, intense, never wrong, willing to bend any ethical rule, and three years out of journalism school.

This was a great introduction to the smarmy, conniving, character that Ruffe Ignace turns out to be.

I've tried to do this type of thing in my own writing. When introducing a motorcycle gang member from the point of view of the main character, a chemist, I wrote this:

Crawley had the rat-faced scowl of someone who grew up around too little food and mean adults.

My hope is to convey more than what a simple description of his clothes and hair would allow. 

So here is my challenge for you today...use the comments to write in one of your own character introductions...I'd love to see how other writers work. 

Until next time...Go Write!


Ann Best said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Best said...

Simple pithy descriptions that capture some quirky aspect of the character--yes, yes, yes! I skip over descriptions such as "she tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder." Doesn't do anything to characterize the person or move the story forward! Your "Crawley had the rat-faced scowl of someone that grew up around too little food and mean adults" is GREAT!! You immediately picture someone who might be a bit skinny, and you wonder who the mean adults are and what they did to him. Excellent.

I love Dashiell Hammett.

p.s. That above deletion is mine. Just a grammatical error I wanted to fix! I probably need a nap!! It's been a long day.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Too late for my brain to come up with anything, but I'll remember these great samples!

Hart Johnson said...

I think these are great, Raquel. I by FAR prefer these more spare descriptions that say more than the words literally do. I think you definitely succeeded in your example as it gets at both a look, and probably a scrappy, stingy personality--defensive, and probably not terribly ethical.