By Bonita Y. McCoy
Description in a story has two jobs. It helps the reader to understand the scene and allows them to use their imagination to picture the action in their minds.
But have you ever picked up a book and found that it went on and on and on about how a character looked or how the room was decorated?
Reading a novel that contains too much description is like listening to a monotone teacher on a warm afternoon, guaranteed to bore. The reader will flip pages trying to locate the action.
However, a novel that doesn’t contain enough description can leave the reader wandering around the story, lost and confused. It also leaves the reader feeling cheated, thinking he only got half of the novel and that the other half is still stuck somewhere in the writer’s brain.
So, how do we measure how much is enough?
Since there are no hard and fast rules, I put together a few questions that can be used to determine if your description is hitting the mark or if it needs some TLC.
Does the description slow down the pace of the story?
If the description acts like a speed bump in a scene, it is either too long or put in the wrong place. There is a reason why most of the description of a setting is done at the beginning of the scene. One, it puts your reader right in the heart of what’s going on, and two, its out of the way once the dialogue and action starts.
You never want your description to slow down the car chase or interrupt an argument between characters. Action beats are one thing; a long drawn out description of the forest is another.
Does the description add to the plot?
If you tend to tell every movement of a character in minute detail, you are doing what I call housekeeping. You are giving your reader a laundry list of everyday activities that they can fill in for themselves. These don’t add to the plot. They instead lessen the readers involvement in the story.
However, description can be used to add flavor to the plot. In Call of the Wild, one of the characters has no name; he is only known by the description, the man in the red sweater. The description shows the reader that the man is a stranger to the point of view character, and being a scoundrel, he isn’t worth getting to know.
Good choices in what to describe and how to describe it, not only draw your reader into the story but can add spice to your plot.
Are you over using adjectives and adverbs?
The first lesson I learned in novel writing was to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. The irony that they use an adverb to explain to us about not using adverbs is not lost on me. However, the advice still applies.
If you use adverbs and adjectives to prop up your word choices, you are cluttering your story. It shows that your nouns and verbs do not convey your meaning, and you are feeling unsure that the reader will understand.
Most of the time, your word choice works fine without the adverb or adjective, but if you aren’t sure, try using a thesaurus to find a word that better shows your meaning. An example of that would be Carol was very angry compared to Carol seethed. One word was able to take the place of three, and the reader got a clearer understanding of Carol’s emotions.
When in doubt about a word choice, check your thesaurus.
Are you trying to use the research you love?
As writers, we all do research, and sometimes, we fall in love with it. We become enamored and want to share all that we have learned with our readers, even at the expense of too much description.
Be honest, does your reader need to know all there is to know about llama care? Even if it’s interesting and you adopted a llama, if it’s not moving the plot forward, it needs to be cut.
These questions are only a start, but they should give you a clearer picture of how you are doing with your use of description. Knowing how much is too much is tricky, even those who have been writing for years find it hard to tell, but with practice, it will get easier to spot its over use. At least, that’s what I hear.
Prompt: The editor wanted half the description gone. Martha wanted to throw the piece of work out the window, but she knew that wouldn’t do any good. She had spent months researching the Appalachian Mountains and hated to leave out any of the imagery and colors she had seen on her trips. Frustration filled her. How was she supposed to decide what to keep and what to cut?