Let's say the first set you come to says that your character has “long stringy orange hair.” In your first draft, that visual image was enough—the movie of story was unreeling in your mind, you saw the character, you took notes. By applying three modifiers your subconscious suggested that this character's hair was a detail worthy of further consideration. In this draft you have an opportunity to do just that—and in doing so, uncover deeper meaning.
Long. Stringy. Orange. It is unfair of you to ask your reader to sift through your verbiage to arrive at meaning. How is she to know what is the most important information if you as author don’t? Try paring that word cluster down to the most important modifier. After all, this isn’t a film—if you give the reader meaning, she will come up with her own visual.
In the case of “long, stringy orange hair,” there is no one right answer. If the hair is inordinately long, and this will come into play later—as a mode of strangulation, or in an emotional turning point where the hair is ritualistically cut off—then its length may be the most important modifier at first. You can always add orange and stringy in later if you want, but spotlight length now and your reader will remember it later. How long is it? Apply a comparison that is relevant to your specific story. Is it so long that if she isn’t careful her brother will sit on it when he flops next to her on the couch? So long she could keep four Locks of Love patients in the current hair fashions? So long she must wear a size larger batting helmet to tuck it all up inside?
If you choose stringy: why is this important? Is she poor, or homeless? Did she have no mother to teach her to care for her type of hair? Is she too preoccupied to read the directions that say she must rinse out the hair conditioner? Or maybe she can’t read? And how does she feel about her hair? Is it a constant frustration that no amount of product can give her that lift that will attract boys? Or is her hair simply the least of her problems? Does her stringy hair reflect depression, or a devil-may-care tomboyishness?
If you choose orange: is the hair a flaming flag of Irish temper? Was the natural brown bleached out and replaced with Day-Glo orange, much to the character’s mother’s dismay? Or is her hair color the genesis of “Pumpkin,” the nickname she hates?
As you encounter further multiple modifiers, follow a similar exploration to see if you can pare away a barrage of detail to find that one telling detail that will deepen your story’s meaning. Assured that you have layered meaning into your story, your reader will start to look for it.
Give this a try—it's fun! And who knows. Maybe the sheer number of words your subconscious attributed to it in the first draft will tell you there’s more story to that “blue-striped canvas folding chair” than you originally thought.
Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at Writing-Partner.com, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. For 19 years she wrote dance criticism and arts features for The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, and for publications of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. She now writes memoir essays and women's fiction.