As many writers know, constructing narratives that include discussions of experiences that are familiar to most or all of humanity can be an advantageous thing to do. This is the case because doing so increases the likelihood that one’s audience will connect with the story being told. When this happens, readers often become interested in the story’s characters and plot evolution. Although there are many human experiences that a writer could reference in order to catch and keep the reader’s attention, discussing physical appearance can be particularly useful given that most people periodically think about the way they look.
While there are many textual examples of a writer effectively discussing physical appearance in a work, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” includes an excellent representation of how this can be done. (And this excellence is probably part of the reason that her short story ended up on Richard Thomas’s list of top ten short stories ever.) Here is an excerpt from her opening paragraph:
“Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.”
Here, Oates discusses physical appearance in context of the disparate way a mother and daughter conceptualize it. While the daughter takes time to observe herself in mirrors and check other people’s faces to determine whether her own looks right, her mother deems such behavior unnecessary and irritating. This fact becomes plain when one considers the fact that the mother tells her daughter to stop looking at herself. The mother goes on to ask pointed questions about her daughter’s motive for placing primacy on her appearance. In asking Connie “You think you’re so pretty?,” she discourages the young woman from paying attention to her looks and perhaps even implies that her daughter is not attractive.
When one considers the excerpt from the opening paragraph of Oates’s short story, its efficacy becomes plain. In narrating the different viewpoints that the mother and daughter have about physical appearance, she gives readers two perspectives they can relate to: appreciation for or irritation with the world of beauty. Since most people have probably adopted either one or both of these perspectives at some point, readers will probably connect with the ideas she presents. Once readers connect with these ideas, the likelihood that they will develop interest in the story’s characters and the unfolding plot increases.
As mentioned earlier, it is advantageous for writers to discuss universal experiences and ideas. Writing about these types of concepts increases the likelihood that one’s audience will become and remain engaged with one’s story. Physical appearance is one of these universal topics that most people find themselves at least periodically drawn to. For this reason, it is a good idea for writers to construct narratives that include discourse regarding how people feel about their physical appearance. Good luck!
Jocelyn Crawley holds B.A. degrees in English and Religious Studies. Her work has appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician, Nailpolish Stories, Visceral Uterus, Dead Beats, Four and Twenty, and Haggard and Halloo. Other stories are forthcoming in Faces of Feminism, The Idiom, Thrice Fiction and Calliope.
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