Beginning Problems: The Mirror

Another common issue found in the beginning of a lot of early drafts and first novels is the mirror. Generally, this is combined with the dream sequence, where the main character wakes up from their dream, stumbles into the bathroom for mundane showering/teeth brushing, and then stares into the mirror, where we get a full, detailed description of their eyes, their hair, whatever other visual quirks, such as freckles, that the author has decided exist.

There are a ton of problems with this. The first of which is that it’s plain weird. I don’t know about you guys, but the last thing I think in the morning after I stumble into the bathroom is how sparkling my green eyes are, and how luscious my wavy blonde hair is, and man, aren’t my long lashes just the best?

(This is true even if the mirror is not related to a dream sequence. I see the “wander down the street and look at one’s reflection in the windows” variation a lot as well, and it still is weird.)

Second of all, it breaks up the story flow. Ideally, a short starts with something happening, even if it’s as simple as fighting with a sibling or being late for school. When you stop and spend a paragraph (or more) on appearance, the story loses its forward momentum.

Third, by dwelling on the main character’s appearance, it’s like the writer is saying, “I don’t know how to properly show characterization, or I think that somehow my character’s appearance is their characterization, and it’s important that I tell you all this now or you won’t care enough to keep reading.”

No reader cares about a character because they’re pretty/plain/brunette/a special snowflake. Readers care about a character because they’ve got a relate-able personality, a problem that’s interesting, something intriguing that pulls a reader along. Frankly, a character’s appearance is the least important aspect of their characterization in most cases (exceptions exist to every rule of course–the only black kid in the neighborhood is an important distinction to note up front, for example) and there’s no reason to dwell on it up front or in such detail.

I’m not saying that appearance can’t be noted–it’s the infodump qualities of the mirror sequence that make it a problem. A line of description here, another there–spread out throughout the narrative, not disrupting flow or plot.

What do you think, Squiders? Disagree with me that the mirror is a problem? Have examples of stories where the author manages it without ruining their momentum?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I think the only way to do it without losing (much) momentum would be if the character is thinking about their appearance for a plot-related reason, and depending on what the reason is it’s not necessarily the best way to show that either.

    Reply

    • Yeah–you can get away with lots of things if you can relate them into your plot somehow, but the secondary problem with this is the length of the description. A line here or there probably doesn’t hurt if you’ve got a good reason for it.

      Reply

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