Nancy Drew moment

And I don’t mean that in a good way.

What I’m referring to is the tendency — nay, the obligation — some writers seem to feel to describe in great detail the clothing a character is wearing. In great and utterly useless detail. In detail that interrupts the flow of the story or the drive of the narrative.

I suppose these writers believe that the reader needs to be able to picture the character in the mind’s eye. I’ve never had much use for this kind of thinking. The fact is that most of us will conceive an image of a character that suits us. Often, I find that I disregard how the writer has dressed the character because it makes no difference to me (and it almost always makes no difference to the story). Honestly, unless a character is meant to be understood as a fop or a fashion-conscious person, I really don’t think what they’re wearing contributes to the tale at all. If you think about it, most of the people you encounter every day are not exceptionally well dressed (or poorly dressed) and you don’t generally need to tick off their daily garments as you are having a casual conversation with them. What they have to say, or their mood, or where they are going is what is important to your interaction.

And so it is, to me, with the fictional characters I encounter. Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t matter at all what a character is wearing. I’ve read more than a few mystery novels in which the narrative gets interrupted by a quick fashion statement, and I always get annoyed with this. It is unnecessary — so unnecessary that it knocks me out of the fictional universe for a moment. Since I’ve come to recognize this writing flaw, I’ve looked for it in other fiction I read. What is notable to me is that I almost never see this kind of sartorial inventorying in “serious literature.” I’ve been watching for it, and it just ain’t there. Nor does it need to be.

I can’t take credit for this use of the term “Nancy Drew moment.” I first read of it more than a year ago on the Maud Newton blog. One of her guest posters, who is a writing instructor, made reference to it, and I quote it here. She is writing about her girlhood reading of Nancy Drew novels:

As much as I loved them, and god, did I love them, they’ve inspired a phrase I use over and over again in teaching writing. “That’s a Nancy Drew moment,” I’ll say. “You don’t need that.” A Nancy Drew moment is when a writer has spent a disproportionate amount of time describing the character’s hair and clothing, particularly when neglecting things like, oh, say, character development. As in, “Nancy darted out of the house in her lime green mini-skirt, her pink casmere sweater and white PVC go go boots which she’d only bought the day before, her strawberry blond hair glinting in the sun as she joined George, in her navy blue wool pea coat, in the convertible.”

A couple of typos in there, and a pronoun reference problem at the end, but the meaning remains.

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