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Shattering the Mirror Cliche

Let me present a cliché many newbie writers are warned to not use: having their character look into a mirror to describe their appearance.  There are several reasons why not to do this:

It had seen better days.
  1. It’s tacky. Look into mirror, describe appearance. There’s also the problem of getting the character to the mirror. If they just woke up, they better have had a plot-relevant dream a couple of pages ago.
  2. Not everyone thinks about their hair color, eye color, skin color or such when looking in a mirror. Yes, people purposely use a mirror to examine their facial features or such, but in most cases, people are using a mirror to comb their hair, brush their teeth, and examine that bothersome pimple. Except for the latter, the character would most likely be focusing on other matters. If the point-of-view’s distant from them, why bother using the mirror in the first place?
  3. It involves telling a list of physical traits. Usually, nothing much is going on since the character is taking the time to describe their appearance the momentum is stunt for a moment. Also, since no movement is going on, the appearance description is most likely static and not very interesting. It's breaking "show, not tell".


But like every other rule, it can be shattered broken masterfully.

What's one example?

I'll be using Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The first line? “There is one mirror in my house.” A simple line that invites intrigue. However, at the bottom of the page:

I sneak a look at my reflection when [my Mom’s] not paying attention—not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months.
I see a narrow face…

At this point, you might be thinking “Mirror cliché! Mirror cliché!"

But remember, there are few absolutes in writing! Rules are meant to be shattered broken, and often it produces a better outcome than if the rule was followed.

Why the example excels.

The reason why the “mirror cliché” works in this case because the narrator rarely sees her face. It solves the first two points I listed. The scene is presented in a way that she (Beatrice) is brought to the mirror naturally, to have her hair cut. After three months, she has every reason to sneak a look. But it also says a lot about her living conditions, without telling.

While the passage ends with a (brief) list of physical traits, that’s excusable. In the end, the author takes a cliché, twists it, and creates a hook that helped make the book successful.

What you should do.

If you're a writer, you should look at any of the clichés or familiar conventions in your story. How are you presenting them? Is it okay as it is, or are there any ways you can twist and play with them, and enhance your story by trying something more original?

Being aware of the rules can elevate your writing. Keep that in mind.

YOUR TURN: Can you think of a way of “shattering” the mirror cliché?