Help needed: Mulling over one line in a short story

I’m still working on my short story submission for the Write Michigan contest. I have a month until it is due. I mentioned in a previous post that an editor friend of mine graciously agreed to read it. He returned a printed version of the manuscript to me with his corrections and comments on it. I’m mulling over one of his suggested changes and I could use some help.

My story has a protagonist, two supporting characters, and two other characters that are only mentioned once or twice. I’m trying to keep the character descriptions to a minimum. As I heard at a writers conference recently, I’m trying to give impressions of characters rather than detailed descriptions.

At one point in the story I describe one of the supporting characters this way:

She had short, ferret-like gray hair and her nose curled upward into a point. She was filing her nails as if she was engaged in battle with her fingers. 

My friend circled the line about filing her nails and wrote in the margin, “I’m not sure this description is working.”

I had already re-written this line a few times before my friend ever saw it. I’m not sure where to go with it. Do you have any ideas?

I’m trying to capture in one sentence that this woman is an angry person. She’s upset about something and liable to unleash her anger if you cross her. She is not to be trifled with and does not want to talk about it. Know what I mean?

I’ve read many short stories in which just one line of description, or just one unique action captures the essence of a character. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to craft something that will make readers thing, “I know exactly who this person is” upon the first reading.

I’m open to suggestions. How would you improve these sentences?


12 thoughts on “Help needed: Mulling over one line in a short story

  1. Jessie Clemence

    I totally understand the filing the nails bit, just the way you have it. I see an older woman sawing at her hands. But I’m wondering about the ferret-hair. Perhaps bristly? Coarse? Ferocious? Something that a reader could instantly identify. I don’t know what kind of hair a ferret has, so that one threw me.

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      I thought that someone might say that. I was actually surprised that my editor friend didn’t say anything about it. I will probably change it to something like, “She had short gray hair and a nose that pulled into a sharp point, reminding him of a ferret…” I like that word “coarse” too. I may drop “short” and insert “coarse.” Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. Toni Gould

    The way a character speaks — both what she says and how she says it — can reveal a lot about character without a lot of narrative description. Just a few details might suffice if her words are as pointed as her fingernails.


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