Give me a Side of Description; Hold the Chunks
It’s tempting to over-describe, isn’t it? It’s a must to give your readers insight into your characters’ pasts and relationships with one another, the setting of your story, and to set up coming events. Isn’t it just easier to do it all in one big chunk? After all, that room your characters are standing in isn’t going to describe itself.
The problem with chunks of over-description is that it makes your story read like a lecture, checklist, or an infomercial. People hate infomercials for a reason, checklists belong on a chores list and lectures belong in the classroom, not your book. Remember that teacher in the Peanut’s cartoons? She would stand before the class and lecture and all of her words turned into “waahnt-wa-wah, wa-waaa…” Yes, this is what your lovingly crafted words become when you litter your manuscript with filler.
But before you spend paragraph after paragraph describing that room, you need to ask yourself three questions.
- Is the description necessary/important to the scene or merely distracting filler?
By default readers give importance to information the author relates, but when an author distracts the reader with loads of information that isn’t important, it frustrates them. You want your readers to participate in your story, to make inferences, to imagine possible future scenarios. But when that reader is given information about characters and scenes and events that have no bearing on the plot, it inhibits their ability to connect with the story. Instead of wasting precious space in your story describing every last detail and character, keep the focus on those things that are truly important. Give basic descriptions and give your readers descriptions that they can relate to so they can fill in any blank spots. Don’t describe or even introduce the reader to characters who are unimportant to the plot. Yes, this means the woman your character smiles at every day on his way into work doesn’t have a part in the story—unless she’s a murderous assassin sent by your antagonist or his future love interest. You’ll make room in your word count for those things that really matter and save your readers a lot of frustration.
- Does this bit of description undermine the action taking place?
My son is a fan of fantasy author Terry Goodkind. Once on a trip to Florida he convinced us to listen to an unabridged version of the book Wizard’s First Rule. An hour into the book the hubs and I were dying. Why? Because despite the need for a fantasy author to expend words on world building, this author was murdering our patience with ill-timed, unnecessary and repetitive descriptions which slowed the action in the story to the point of tediousness. The moment the author interrupted an action scene with a superfluous description of a chair, complete with backstory and (if I remember correctly) a flashback, I turned off the audiobook with a frustrated exclamation of, “I’m done!” And I was. SO done. I didn’t care that we were “almost to the good part” as my son put it.
What is the lesson that I took away from this experience? Timing matters. It’s hard to build suspense in a scene when you focus on setting instead of action. Especially when you describe that setting in huge chunks that slow down the scene or bring it to a complete standstill. Did that chair in the book Wizard’s First Rule matter to the plot? Perhaps it did, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out because of the way the author related description to me, which brings me to my last point.
- Can I relate this information to the reader in a different, more palatable way?
Imagine for a moment, you need to describe a table to a reader. It’s an important part of the setting that will appear again and again in the story. Do you really need a paragraph on the style of the table (including length and width), the magnificent pattern of grain, comparisons between the stain and the dark eyes of the protagonist’s lover, the history of the table and the various members of the family who grew up taking their meals there, and the backstory of the builder? Or would it suffice to tell the reader that “the room was dominated by a rustic farm table that was as much a member of the family as our heralded matriarch”?
You can save words and a heck of a lot of over-description by relating the familiar and using words that give an unmistakable impression. The reader can infer from the word “dominate” that the table is large. The description of the table as rustic lets the reader know that the table is old, worn, and has been used for many generations and probably was not made by anyone of note. “Farm table” instantly puts the picture of a rectangular, slatted table (most likely complete with benches) into the minds of the reader. And the likening of the table as a venerated member of the family tells the reader that this is a piece of furniture that is beloved and has been passed down through many generations and through this table the family kept connection to the distant past and it is representative of their history.
That is a massive amount of information that is relayed in a mere twenty-two words, and it replaces what could be paragraphs of unnecessary description.
Why is this important? Because sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph of unnecessary filler makes readers’ eyes bleed. No, seriously. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t times when you will need a chunk of description. Just don’t overdo it. It shouldn’t take five pages to describe a house, multiple paragraphs to describe a character’s appearance or clothing, or even a whole page to describe a room.
What’s more, instead of describing in chunks, scatter description throughout a scene in a natural way. Remember, just as in nature there are no perfect lines, rows or checklists, there shouldn’t be in your book either (at least not ones your readers will notice). Your descriptions should flow naturally and organically from the narration and the characters themselves. If it feels like description, you’re doing it wrong. My personal favorite way is to filter the perception of a character or the setting through the eyes of another character, especially when using narrative in and around dialogue. It makes the descriptions feel less overwhelming.
Writing Exercise: Write a scene and scatter the description of the setting and characters throughout the scene. Use no more than a sentence or two at a time to describe an attribute of a character, an object in the setting, or the setting itself.