Saturday, 14 May 2011

Description - too much or too little?

This is the kind of thing that will confuse any writer – how can you tell if you have enough description, or too little, especially when you are confronted with conflicting advice on what constitutes enough description.

Many writers believe that there shouldn’t be great chunks of description in your narrative, because this tends to bore the reader.  Some say you don’t need to go into huge detail about your characters or setting– again resulting in a block of text – because the idea is to keep the reader engaged and interested.  They don’t want to read lots of description.
This trend of using little description to ensure more action, is flawed - it’s designed for writers who can’t be bothered to invest the time to enrich their stories, nor invest in their readers, and it benefits the readers because they don’t have to use too much brain power reading large chunks of description, when all they want is action and dialogue.  

Some of those who write in the thrillers/action genre wrongly assume that description isn’t too important, because action is what counts.  Well placed and well-written description, however, is the difference between a great thriller and a poorly written one, and those lacking the element of good description will never make it past the slush pile.
Everything in society, it seems, is fast-paced.  It’s what readers demand – short attention spans need shorter descriptions, but writers must remember that there are three elements that must balance to have a fully realised story: dialogue, description and narrative.  Sacrificing one at the expense of the other may not get you noticed by agents or publishers, and could weaken your story. 

Description should move the story forward –it should hint at something, build a picture for the reader, create mood and tension, heighten the atmosphere.  These elements cannot be achieved without description.  Too little, and your story really will suffer.
For you, the writer, description is your lifeblood, you need it, the story needs it and your reader needs it (whether they like it or not).  The premise of description is for you to fill in the information that the reader won’t know, to build on their awareness, to provide background information and sensory appreciation, to reveal characters and plot and to keep the momentum of the story.

The key is getting the balance right; just enough to inform the reader, but not too much that it bores them.  Take, for instance, a scene that describes the main character waking up and facing a day of stress at work, but it has so much description that it’s not until page 8 that he finally gets out of bed!  This is where it’s just too much.  The more you write and gain experience, the more you will intuitively know that you need to cut lots of unnecessary waffle.
Description can inform and tease your reader.  It can hint, it can play with them; it can build them up to a crescendo, it can create emotion, it can take them on a journey. Of course, that would all depend on whether you’re writing the correct kind of description.  There is a difference between the wrong sort of description and the right sort. The wrong sort makes excessive use of adjectives and adverbs and provides information that isn’t really necessary, like this:

He raced down the street, his thick black hair glistening in the low-level lighting which cast soft pools of amber across his square-jawed face, which remained unshaven, but his strong blue eyes penetrated the murk in time to see her running into an alleyway.  His strong, powerful legs powered him through the darkness and into the alley, his masculine presence filling the entire narrow stone corridor...
By simply cutting the double adjectives and tidying sentence structure, you have a better sense of description, one that is just enough for the reader and one that moves the story forward, without it being excessive.

He raced down the street; his black hair glistened in the low-level lighting and soft amber pools found his face.  He saw her slip into an alleyway and he followed, quickly reaching the darkness that clogged the alley.  He listened to the echoes of her footsteps across the stone...
The kind of description to avoid is the useless kind; the stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, like the colour of your protagonist lipstick and whether she spent half an hour straightening her hair, or describing the villain’s expensive Italian suit and leather shoes which he bought from Versace in London last Tuesday. 

Description should be proportionate to the story - it should be balanced. Think of the Goldilocks rule – Baby bear’s bowl of porridge was too little; papa bear’s was too much.  But mama bear’s bowl was just right for Goldilocks.
The same is true of description.  Too much – by that I mean pages and pages of it – will bore your reader.  Too little – a sentence here or there at the expense of lashings of action and dialogue, will mean you end up creating a story that doesn’t satisfy.

There will be times when maybe a page of description is required to strengthen a particular section of story.  There may be times when there is no dialogue for several pages...so what else is there other than description? 
It's surprising how many writers lose sight of the importance of description and how it can influence how much the reader will enjoy their story.  No one can tell you how much or how little to use.  It’s up to you, as writers, how you attain that fine balance, but practice and editing goes a long way to achieve it.

  • Make sure it’s not the wrong sort of description – keep it pertinent, tight and consistent.
  • Keep it proportionate – Look for a balance between narrative, description and dialogue.
  • Appropriate placement of description – interspersed throughout the chapters to help strengthen key scenes.
  • Don’t over explain – describe your characters, the scene, the tension, but don’t describe every single minutiae.  Keep it simple, keep it interesting.
  • Read and re-read what you have written - you will learn to recognise too much or too little.

Next week: Writing strategies - Repetition and how it works.


3 comments:

  1. This is really timely advice for me, as I'm currently working character descriptions throughout the story. I'd put too much, too early, I think, and am trying to spread that part out. Thanks for the great info!

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  2. It warms my heart to see you sticking up for description. I love it and we were taught at school the virtues of it. I adore writing description. It's one of my strengths. I'm constantly slammed for writing it but I don't give it up without a fight.

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  3. I find that, in my opinion at least, a lot of published fantasy these days has long, drawn out and rambling descriptions of the mundane. It is almost like the author, and even the publisher, is trying to stretch a story from one to two books or two books into a trilogy. I find myself skipping ahead a lot to get away from it.

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