Continuing a look at too much versus too little description, in part 2 we’ll look at how writers should actively strike a balance between the two so that the resulting novel doesn’t have too much and doesn’t end up with too little.
In Part 1 we looked at why too much or too little can become negatives, but also how they can work for the writer in some aspects, i.e. having less description in action scenes in order to keep the pace, and more description in longer, tense, atmospheric or emotional scenes etc, which enhances the reading enjoyment.
Where description is concerned, it really is a matter of balance.
Lacing the Narrative
Description isn’t just about describing the obvious in manageable chunks – sometimes description is about subtlety and dropping hints.
Many writers lace their scenes with description by blending dialogue and description or with character actions and description. For example, here’s simple dialogue and description:
‘Nearly there...’ He hauled the log into place. Sinews rippled; dark sun-kissed skin taught with tension. ‘That’s the last one.’
In this simple example, instead of saying ‘He was a strong, well-built man and could lift the logs with ease’, the description tells the reader he’s strong because it shows his sinews rippling as he lifts the log. The reader also knows that his skin is tanned by the mention of ‘sun-kissed’.
With character actions and descriptions, the writer can reveal more about the character, motivations and otherwise unknown details that help the reader build a picture. For example:
Further along the ridge he noticed more people, which only made him more anxious. He hadn’t counted on the warm weather bringing so many people to the park. Months of meticulous plans teetered on an imaginary ledge and now panic – something he’d never felt before – stuttered through his veins.
You’ll notice that the character not only reveals something about himself and his motivation, but also what he is noticing around him. This is important if you want your readers to see things from your character’s perspective. By making such observations, you make the story inclusive for the reader; it will get them more involved, not only with your character, but with the story.
What is Good Description?
Good description does several things – it provides details, it moves the story along, it reveals characters and it heightens emotions and senses, whether it’s fast action, whether it’s a slower love scene, a reflective scene or a scary scene full of atmosphere and tension.
Good description provides imagery, but doesn’t become flowery. It uses more nouns and verbs and less adjectives and adverbs. It enhances the narrative rather than weaken it and there’s just enough to keep the reader sufficiently interested, entertained and desperate to read the next page rather than putting them to sleep through sheer boredom.
Know When to Describe
Easy said than done, right? The more you write, the more you learn about when to describe, because everyone knows that the type of description either slows down the pace or speeds it up. That means knowing when to describe a key scene. In other words, your description should have purpose – to move the story forward, to provide detail, reveal character and heighten emotions and senses.
Know What to Describe
If left to their own devices, writers will write about everything.
What you describe is as important as the rest of the story. Describe only what is important, what is necessary and that which enhances the story. Important scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes, reflective scenes – the scenes that serve a purpose and provide perspective. These are what you need to describe.
So, the original question was Too Much v. Too Little Description? Description should always advance your story but never restrict it. It should have a balance, therefore it should never have too many large descriptive chunks (or pages and pages) nor have so few descriptions that the novel looks threadbare.
Goldilocks wins every time: not too much, not too little, but just about right.
Next week: Avoid getting Tenses in a Tangle.