Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Little Things

I don't normally watch TV, but some friends of mine love Grey's Anatomy, so it's hard to avoid knowing what's going on or watching it sometimes. The other day, I was watching an old episode in which one girl tried to explain to her boyfriend that they couldn't live together, because he was anal retentive and she was incredibly messy. And, in my opinion, the script was wonderful.

The thing that made it great for me was the subtlety with which their roles were portrayed. This was the first time the viewer was seeing their homes, near as I could tell, and these were aspects of their personality that hadn't been too prominent in the show. But, through the episode, while they blantantly declared these facts, they also dropped subtle hints that this was their life.

When the messy girl is alone in the boyfriend's place, she calls her friend. She says that they could do surgery there (which I enjoyed, because it shows that they both think like surgeons, and they're supposed to be surgical residents) and then cries, "Oh my god, he's sorted his books by the Dewey Decimal System. I've got to get out of here." What I that translated into for me was, "Holy hell, he's crazy organized, and I can't handle that, because I'm incredibly not." So it was highly informative, a new quirk about his character, and highly amusing.

My personal favorite touch came when he saw her apartment for the first time. Clothes everywhere, stuff everywhere, a complete mess. She walks in and drops her bag on the floor (great detail for her character, by the by), but he remains at the door, with a look of complete shock on his face. Then, his face still in shock, he reaches down, picks up her bag, and sets it on the chair. He hasn't said anything, moved from the door, or altered his facial expression, and yet his character shown through so brilliantly. And it was just such a tiny, simple action.

I know it's probably said a million times but it's the little things that really make a moment art. Today I passed a couple eating breakfast. How did I know they were together. They weren't wearing 'I'm With Her -->' t-shirts. No, there was just a look in their eyes when they were talking to each other, a way that one positioned her body towards the other. Tiny things, but you just knew.

From a very young age, we learn to respond to the small signs and minute signals that people give us. The hint of an eyebrow raise between two people indicates mutual acknowledgment of acquaintanceship. Leaning in more indicates interest. Tightly crossed arms indicates discomfort, anxiety, a desire to be separated from a particular person, place, or situation. We all read these clues, whether we realize it or not. So would our characters. And if people need to read them, they need to know they're their.

Is your character ticked at someone else? She might cross her arms when speaking to them. Is you MC very gregarious? He'll probably be inclined to gesturing and touching people a bit more. Persnickety and fastidious? Such a character might redo his or her hair at frequent intervals.

The little things are the clues to the big ones.

What kinds of little things do your characters do? Any sightings of interesting "little things" lately?


  1. Classic showing versus telling! Love all of your examples!

  2. Great examples. I have a tendency to use the same things over and over again. I'm trying to diversify my "little things".

  3. I think sometimes it takes work to figure the little things out and to fit them in, but I really do think it's worth it.

  4. Thank you for this post! I've been working on a new ms. I'm only 3000 words into it and I just wrote my character thinking about how she's a touchy-feely type of person, but I've never given any clues to this before having her think it. I probably would have realized I needed to SHOW this before or instead of telling it, but now, because of this post...I'm off to correct that now! Thanks again! LOL