Sunday, March 15

Day Fifteen: Clean Up the Description and Stage Direction

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Fifteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop.As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while now, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.

Now that we have the setting, world, and information about that world cleaned up, it’s time to move on to the general descriptions in the novel and see how they compare.

Today, let’s make sure our descriptions and stage directions are serving the story and not getting in its way.

1. Check the Descriptions

Description problems tend to fall into one of three categories: too much, not enough, or too vague. Go through your scenes and ask (where relevant):

Is there too much description? Not every item in a scene needs to be described, only what’s important to understand the scene, the setting, the characters, the problem, or to set the mood. In you’re unsure, try highlighting or changing the color of all the descriptive text in a scene to more quickly spot heavy areas that might need trimming. Cut any any necessary details.

Revision tip: Read your scenes out loud (or run them through a text-to-speech program) and listen for trouble spots. It’s sometimes easier to hear where there are problems since we have to wait for the words to go by.

Is there too little description? Look for any “white room” issues where there’s little to no description at all. Passages with a lot of short lines or white space on the page are often places that could be light on description. Add description where needed.

Revision tip: Try zooming out so you see multiple pages at once on your screen. When the text is all gray bars, it’s easier to see where the sparse sections are (and the heavy ones, as this also works for too much description).

Not sure what to add? Start with the senses:
  • Sight: What does the protagonist see?
  • Sound: What sounds does she hear?
  • Smell: Are there smells?
  • Touch: Are there textures or external physical sensations?
  • Taste: Does taste factor in at all?

Is the description clear? If a scene has the right level of detail, but you still feel something is off (or your beta readers have told you something is off), it could be that you’re using the wrong details, or the details aren’t clear enough yet. Context might be lacking and what’s in your head isn’t making it onto the page. Try looking at the scene objectively:
  • Which details might mean more to you than to readers?
  • Which details need a little more explanation?
  • Which details could be giving readers the wrong impression or setting up the wrong expectation?
  • Which details aren’t specific enough?

2. Enhance the Descriptions

One of the problems with description is that it doesn’t do anything—it just sits there and tells readers what things look like. But description can layer in additional information if we choose details that do more than just show a pretty picture. Look at any vanilla details in a scene and ask:
  • How could that detail suggest something about the world?
  • How could that detail foreshadow an event?
  • How could that detail be a clue to a plot twist or plot point?
  • How could that detail help create tension or suspense?
  • How could that detail trigger an emotional response?
  • How could that detail evoke a memory?

3. Personalize the Descriptions

This is where all that POV work we did will pay off. POV characters are going to describe things differently—they’ll judge what they see, have opinions about it, relate it to something in their life. If they notice it, there’s a reason behind it, which can make the world feel that much more personal and immersive for readers. As you go through your scene, think about:

Who's doing the looking? Someone in love will probably see a garden courtyard a lot differently than someone running through it with zombies on her tail. One would notice the beauty, the poetry, the fragility, while the other would notice the potential weapons, exits, and ambush spots. Use your POV to give your descriptions greater meaning.

What do they notice? What gets noticed can tell readers something about the person doing the noticing. What’s seen and why is also a great opportunity for characters to misunderstand an important clue or detail.

Why do they notice it? People don't usually notice everything about what's around them. The details that stand out are things that catch their eye for various reasons. Often, characters are looking for something specific, which gives you opportunities to describe as they search. Make sure the reasons characters notice things tracks with their personality, knowledge, and the current scene.

(Here are more articles on description)

4. Check for Weak or Vague Descriptive Words

When we use vague words to show what something looks like, we’re missing an opportunity to bring that something to life for our readers. As you’re examining your descriptions, keep an eye on your words (especially the adjectives) and consider:

Does the description tell readers anything they didn't already know? Soft, fluffy, and white are all words to describe a cloud. That's like saying, "He dived into the wet water." If the words don't provide additional information than what the detail itself conveys, you can probably cut it.

Does it provide judgment on the POV's part?
This is a good trick to see if you're the one telling readers what something looks like or if the POV character is describing it in her own words. How often do you walk outside and think, "Gee, look at those soft, fluffy, white clouds drifting gently across the sky." You more likely think, "pretty day" or something that fits your personality and the situation.

Is there a reason to go into more detail? Descriptions can be used to set a mood, or evoke an emotion. If your protagonist just broke up with her boyfriend and is in a really foul mood, she might describe the sky as "stupid fluffy, white clouds all soft and cottony." The tone comes across completely different because of her mood. Or you might want to contrast something for dramatic effect, like seeing a bright pink hearse at a funeral.

Can you describe it better through action? Since adjectives describe other words, a precise noun or verb might work better. "A hard rain fell" could turn into "Rain pounded the windows."

How does it affect the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph?
Lots of descriptive words in a row can feel list-like. "She was a tall, thin woman with flowing, curly blond hair and wide-set ice-blue eyes. Her dress swirled around her, dark royal blue, with small, round gold buttons along a narrow waistline." But the right word in the right spot can add that extra beat that makes a line sing. "He was tall and dark, with eyes of sin and moonlight." You need the double beats at the end to balance the beginning. It wouldn't sound the same like: "He was tall, with eyes of sin and moonlight." All the music is gone.

Revise anything that feels weak, but a word of caution here—be wary of going overboard with descriptions and accidentally shift into purple prose (and cause more work for yourself come Day Twenty-Five when we focus on overwritten passages).

5. Check the Stage Directions

Stage directions help get characters from place to place, whether it’s across the room or across the galaxy. They’re necessary to keep the story moving, but also common places to find awkward prose (we’ve all written a sentence where the character is essentially doing four things at once and needs three hands). It’s also common to try to explain too many steps when one basic phrase would get the point across just fine.

Common awkward stage direction red flag words:
Just like with stimulus/response, as, while, and when are good words to search for. Another common awkward area—dialog tags—people speaking, “while doing this, and moving toward that, while being this.”

For most of the awkward stage direction, the easiest fix is just to break the (usually too long) sentence into multiple sentences. For directions with way too many steps, trim it down to the steps that actually matter.

(Here’s more on stage directions)

Characters who try: Characters “try” to do a lot of things in stories. They try to get up, they try to hide, they try to hold back tears. Sometimes the act of trying is valid, but a lot of times, what the writer really means is that they do something, not try to do something. For example, “She tried to stand, dragging herself up by the curtains.” At the end of this, is she standing or not? If so, then she “dragged herself up by the curtains” and there was no trying involved. She did it.

Do a search for “try” and make sure it’s saying what you mean and not creating awkward or ambiguous directions. Ask:
  • Is the person actually doing what she’s trying to do? If so, rewrite to eliminate the try.
  • Are you intending to show the struggle, the failure, or the success of that action? If so, trying is probably the right word.
  • Does the use of try show an action or explain a motivation? If it’s explaining, you might be telling and this is a good spot to rework.

After today’s session, our descriptions should be balanced and our stage directions clean and clear. Next, we’ll move on to clarifying the emotions associated with all these great details.

Tomorrow: Clarify the Tone and Mood

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Yes on 'try'. That is one word I've learned to search for because it's so easy to abuse and misuse. Same with 'start' and 'begin'.

    Great post as always, Janice. :)

    1. Thanks! Ooo start and begin are pet peeves of mine, even though I catch myself using them all the time. I think they come up in stage five :)

  2. I tend to use "seemed" a lot. I guess that's a lot like "try".

    1. Very similar potential pitfalls. It depends on what your goal is when writing them. If it's to show the struggle, they work. If you want to show the actual action, they usually fall a little flat.