Monday, July 29, 2019

How to Write Description Without Going Overboard

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Description helps brings a novel to life, but too much of it can choke the life right out of the story. Finding the right balance between description and dialogue can be tricky.

One wonderful and yet annoying aspect of writing, is that there’s no set formula for how much description is necessary. Description levels vary by genre and authors, and even readers have their preferences. Fans of poetically written literary novels typically enjoy richer descriptions than fans of fast-paced thrillers, for example.

How we choose to write the description also plays a role. That thriller can have just as many details in a scene as the literary novel, but how they’re woven into the story will be completely different. The author’s style and voice, as well as the genre’s style, influence the description.

There Is No Rule for How Much Description You Need

Determining the right amount of description usually comes down to the writer’s sense of how much a reader needs to ground themselves in the scene. Things that are quite familiar to readers might not need a lot of description, while things readers won’t know will need more.

However, some scenes require more description to evoke the right emotional response, even if the readers knows it intimately. Such as a love scene (pun intended). The details are one of the reasons readers pick up that genre of book, and skimping there results in unhappy readers. But even within love scenes, the amount of description can vary—sweet romance focuses on very different things than erotica.

A Descriptive Rule of Thumb

There aren’t any official rules here, but my personal rule of thumb is this: a roughly one-third split between dialogue, internal thought, and description. This covers the basic narrative elements of a novel.
  • Dialogue: Everything spoke in the novel.
  • Internal thought (internalization): Everything thought in the novel.
  • Description: Everything else. This covers action, stage direction, exposition, backstory, etc. If it isn’t thought or said, it’s described in some way.
But this doesn’t mean every page will have an even split between these three. You won’t have a line of dialogue, a line of internalization, and a line of description in each paragraph. You’ll have sections where there’s a lot of dialogue and little description, and places where there’s more description and little dialogue. But in the end, if you grouped everything up, it's often around a third for each.

A word of caution: This isn’t a rule—don’t force your novel to fit this ratio.
This is a general sense of how novels tend to break down, not a format you need to match. But if you’re getting feedback that suggests you’re too heavy or too light in one area, it’s a way to check to see what might be missing. For example:
  • If someone says it’s too slow, that could indicated not enough dialogue. But it could also indicate a goal issue, or a pacing issue, so it’s not so cut and dry.
  • If someone says they can’t picture the scene, that could indicate there’s not enough description. But it could also mean the scene is using the wrong details.
  • If someone says they can’t connect to the character, that could indicate there’s not enough internalization. But it could also indicate a problem with the character, as well.
Use the one-third ratio as a guideline, not a template. And for most of us, we’re probably naturally using it anyway. But if you know you tend to write sparse, or heavy, or never get internal enough, then you’ll have something to aim for to make sure you cover everything.

(Here’s more on One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions)

Where More Description Is Often Needed

There are areas in a novel where more description is typically used. Opening scenes usually need a bit more since the reader knows nothing about the story yet. Beginnings of chapters also typically describe more, especially if they change locations. The more important something is in the story, the more it’s usually described (unless it’s a clue and you don’t want it to look important, then you can treat it less so).

If you’re unsure, look at the scene and decide what information is necessary to understand the scene. What critical details need to be there? What information matters for the scene to make sense to readers?

(Here's more on Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

You Can Describe a Lot with a Little

One misconception with description, is that if someone says, “You need more description” you need a ton if it. You don’t need a ton of detailed description if that’s not your style, and you can usually get away with just having the character interact with and observe the world.

Often, a single word can say more than a long paragraph. Bob stood next to the cactus creates a very different picture than Bob stood next to the tree.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

Description Isn’t Just in the “Description,” Either

When we think “description,” we often think the “this is what something looks like” type. But you can tell readers what something looks like or what’s going on using dialogue and internalization as well.

For example, here are some different ways you can say “it’s cold and snowing.”
White flakes drifted on the Arctic wind and coated the frozen ground like a blanket.
This is a traditional descriptive sentence. There’s no sense of a narrator, but we can tell this take place in the Arctic, and it’s snowing.
Bob glanced out the window and sighed. Great, snow. At the rate is was coming down, he’d need a dog sled to get to work.
This is a typical description using internalization. Bob is the narrator, he sees the snow and comments on it, and we know it’s snowing hard and fast by how he describes it.
“It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” Susie cried. “Mommy, can we go sledding?”
Her mom looked out the window. “Give it an hour, sweetie. It’s not quite deep enough for that yet.”
This is a typical description using dialogue. We get a sense of how much it’s snowing based on what the characters say.
A blast of icy wind knocked Kayla back a step. She pulled her cloak tighter around her throat, wiped the snow from her half-frozen lips, and kept going. Blizzard or not, she had to find him by morning.
This is a typical description using action and internalization, showing the character interacting with and thinking about the world. We know it’s snowing and cold because we see her dealing with the snow and the cold.

Any of these will let readers know the details, but most of them also share something about the character and the goal of the scene. Bob needs to get to work, Susie wants to go sledding, Kayla is searching for someone. Only the first one describes just the snow. And odds are, that was the least interesting one to read.

(Here’s more on Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

Adding Description to a Scene

In the above example, it’s the little details and internal thoughts that mix in with the dialogue to create the narrative balance. We can add more to bring out more details in these snippets, and paint an even larger picture of whats going on.

Let’s flesh these out and see what happens:
“Think we can make it to the guard station?” John asked, standing out of the wind at the mouth of the cave. White flakes drifted on the Arctic wind and coated the frozen ground like a blanket. Or a death shroud if they got trapped here.
“Is this?” Marcus shook his head. “Doubt it.”
“So our options are stay here and starve, or risk freezing?”
“There’s always option three.”
“Which is?”
Marcus grinned, but his eyes didn’t hold any humor. “We get eaten by polar bears. We don’t know what else lives in this cave.”
This has 45 words of dialogue and 50 words of description and internalization. It’s harder to split the descriptive and internalized passages, because they blend together nicely and sound like John observing and thinking abut his world and the situation. Even though it’s description, it doesn’t stop the story or offer too many details, but the details do say a lot. I used “Arctic” and “polar bears” to suggest this takes place in the Arctic circle somewhere. We can tell these guys are in trouble by their dialogue. We get a sense of the scene in less than 100 words.
Bob glanced out the window and sighed. Great, snow. At the rate is was coming down, he’d need a dog sled to get to work. “Honey, have you seen my coat?”
“Hall closet.”
He navigated the toy-strewn foyer and opened the closet door. No coat. But he did spot the firetruck Joey was looking for yesterday. “You sure? I’m not seeing it.”
“It’s behind the shopping bags.”
“The green ones or the plastic ones?”
“Green ones.”
He shoved aside the bags. Why they weren’t in the pantry he had no idea, but—“It’s not here,” he shouted.
This is 31 words of dialogue, 24 words of description, and 42 words of internalization. It’s easier to tell Bob’s internal thoughts versus description here, since the point of view is much tighter. There’s very little actual description here, yet look how much in conveyed. Bob is late for work. The “toy-strewn room” and “Joey’s firetruck” show a father with a young son, and “having trouble finding things” shows a chaotic house, and patient wife. It’s just a family in their daily morning routine.
“It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” Susie cried. “Mommy, can we go sledding?”
Her mommy looked out the window. “Give it an hour, sweetie. It’s not quite deep enough for that yet.”
“Can we watch it from the porch?”
“You’ll be frozen by the time it’s ready.”
Susie pulled on her braids, one in each hand, and blinked her big blue eyes. “Puh-leeezee!”
“Fine.” Mommy sighed. “But if you turn into a susiesickle I’m sticking you right in the freezer with the leftovers.”
This has 56 words of dialogue and 26 words of description, yet no internalization. There’s a decent sense of Susie’s personality here, and suggestions of a mother who’s a little worn out with a kid stuck in the house who wants to go outside. Or maybe she’s teasing her daughter and this is a game to them. Without any internalization, it’s hard to tell, which is a good example of how throwing in some internal thoughts here and there really help develop the context of a scene.
A blast of icy wind knocked Kayla back a step. She pulled her cloak tighter around her throat, wiped the snow from her half-frozen lips, and kept going. Blizzard or not, she had to find him by morning.
How could Aurelio have been so stupid? Running off like an idiot with a storm on the way. It was one lousy insult, from a court jester no less. No one cared what a jester thought, especially in King Hammond’s court. Now, if the king had laughed at the comment, well, then maybe Aurelio had cause to worry. But the king hadn’t. He’d paid more attention to the Northern courtier and her oh-so-innocent-what-a-lovely-banquet-hall act. She was up to something for sure.
Stop worrying about her and focus.
Kayla grit her teeth and kept searching.
This is the longest of the set at 132 words, with 35 words of description, 97 internalization and no dialogue. But notice how much information in conveyed just by Kayla thinking about her dumb friend and how he got into this mess. We also see the cold, the snow, the danger. 

(Here’s more on Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene) 

This is all essentially show, don't tell, really. You don't need to cram a scene full of details to paint a picture and describe what’s going on if you use the right details. You’re not explaining or telling readers what's going on, you’re showing it in action, and having the characters interact with the world or think about it in a way that conveys the details naturally. This way, description becomes part of the story, not the author inserting explanation of what things look like and how and why characters acted.

Choose the right words, find the right balance, and readers will get lost in a story that feels effortless.

How much description do you prefer? Are you a sparse writer or a descriptive one?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I think this is one of the best posts I've ever read. You even managed to make me curious about the characters in the examples!

    1. Aw, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it and liked the examples. Sometimes I do want to write their stories, afterward lol.

  2. Looks good but I spotted this during a tea break from doing a painting (watercolour) that needs to be in the post by tomorrow. So going to have to come back to read and digest it properly.

  3. Why does it ask me to select my (secondary) email address and then 'post' me as 'unknown'? Lindsey Russell

    1. I don't know. Blogger has multiple issues and nothing I do ever seems to fix them. Sorry about that. It frustrates me as well.

  4. So I wrote a comment clicked on 'preview and it disappeared :(

    Lindsey Russell

    1. So sorry :( That happens to me on so many different platforms that I just copy comments before I hit post or preview these days.