We know it’s possible to have too little description in our writing but what about having too much? Today we have a guest post from Pagan Malcolm on finding the perfect balance.
Description is one of the first things you learn about when learning to write stories in school.
My teachers always encouraged us to use adjectives and to avoid the word ‘said’—resulting in stories from my peers that probably could have rivalled dictionaries.
It appears that good description is something a lot of people struggle to write and teach—and funnily enough, description always seemed to be my downfall when it came to querying.
The very first time I queried my novel, Lanterns In The Sky, I got a knockback from the publisher (Lycaon Press). They liked the story, and they were interested—but they wanted to see if I could add more description first.
So I went ahead and did that, and they accepted the manuscript.
This was back in 2014—I was 17 years old, still in high school, and it must have been maybe the 8th or 9th draft of that book I’d been working on.
I quickly discovered, going through this process, how much of a difference adding more description made to my story. There were missing actions that needed describing, settings that needed more support, and other various areas that needed tightening up.
After the company went bankrupt, three more years passed, and about 10 more drafts went by before I got my second point of interest from The Parliament House. However, this time, they wanted less description.
So I went back to my story, toned a lot of it down—and they accepted the manuscript.
Once again, these changes made a massive difference to the (now) 18th draft of the story. There were parts where I’d repeated actions unnecessarily, times where the descriptions dragged on almost poetically, and parts where the description killed my most tense scenes.
So, this raises the question: what should writers aim for when it comes to descriptions?
I’ve outlined a couple of points from what I’ve learned from my experiences to help aspiring authors with this tricky aspect of writing:
- Make sure everything is explained clearly
For example, if a character is approaching, note their footsteps, or have another character detail how they enter the room.
The worst thing in a novel is choppy, jumpy scenes where characters appear out of nowhere, and the only indicator that they’ve joined the scene is their sudden dialogue.
Also, pro-tip: Just because you can see everything happening, doesn’t mean the reader can.
- When it comes to describing settings, choose the most important aspects for that scene
For example, if you want to describe a busy, bustling city—detail the skyscrapers, the hordes of people, and the beeping cars to help the reader visualise it. You don’t need much more for them to get the picture, and you don’t need to describe everything down to a tee.
- Action scenes need to be quick and fast paced
Think punches, scrapes, and describe what they’re feeling instead of detailing orchestrated fight sequences that last for pages and pages. You’re not teaching a karate class, you’re telling a story.
- As for emotional scenes, dig deep into your character
Get clear on character expressions, body language, and the sound of their cracked voice, their pounding heart, their heavy, dragging footsteps, etc.
Think about how you can describe what’s happening both externally and internally, in a way the reader can relate to.
- Spend some time practising your writing and creating a distinct, writing voice
For example, my writing style is very melodic and poetic at times, but can also be light-hearted and fun, or dark and mysterious. Each of these aspects of my writing usually result in different descriptions—they can be metaphorical, or they can be to the point.
When it comes to tightening everything up, you want to be clear on the kind of voice you want to put out there so that you know how to go about editing your descriptions.
I knew I wanted to keep the poetic side of my writing, so I was very careful in how I cut down and changed prose. Even if it didn’t read quite as poetic, the point still got across—and it read a lot smoother after some editing.
Overall, balanced description is just about knowing when to expand on, and when to condense your prose. Key indicators to help you figure this out will be the type of scene, the people and actions involved, and whether you’re deep into the scene already or just ‘setting the scene’, so to speak.
What do you struggle with most when it comes to writing description? Drop a comment below and let us know!
Pagan is the YA fiction author of The Ryan Rupert Series and The Starlight Chronicles Series. She is also a writing coach & business strategist for Paperback Kingdom.