by Jessica Bell
Too much description and you risk boring your reader. Too little description and your reader has no environment in which to visualize your characters. But it really is a fine line, and depends so much on personal taste.
Being a poet as well as a novelist, I adore description. And I have to admit, I go overboard sometimes. But my “description binges” are always calculated. And more often than not, I cut them down to at least half the original length. There are two ways you can do this. I suggest you implement both for variety of pace.
1. Identify which parts of your book are purely “decorative” and/or have little or no relevance to your setting and plot and evaluate how important they are to you. You don’t need to get rid of them all. Just find a balance you’re comfortable with. Trust your instincts. And I say don’t take that “kill your darlings” stuff too seriously. If everyone killed all their darlings, they’d have no family left.
2. Extract a big chunk of description and break it down into rational stand-alone segments or sentences. Then incorporate them into some action.
Look at SEGMENT No.1 below, for instance. Here we have an example of action, an example of description, and an example of the same piece of action and description combined:
“I can’t believe Selma’s gone.” John runs his fingertips along the fence before opening the gate.
Isolated segment of description:
Rusty wire fencing borders the abandoned paddock. The gate is squeaky. It always has been. Selma claimed it kept her alert to trespassers and refused to oil the hinges.
Description segment added to action:
“I can’t believe she’s gone.” John runs his fingertips along the rusty wire fencing that borders the abandoned paddock. He opens the gate. It squeaks like it always has. He’s reminded of Selma’s refusal to oil the hinges. She said it kept her alert to trespassers.
The final example does several things. There is action. There is back story and character info on Selma and there is description.
In the grand scheme of things, the changes you choose to make are your choices. So if you want lots of description, and believe it deserves to be there, so be it. But, I urge you, please don’t go on and on for pages about the beauty of Mother Nature in spring. Your readers will just stop reading if the action is interrupted for more than a page. Some say that the limit is two paragraphs, but if, like me, you’re a literary author, I think you can get away with one page. At the very most. And I’m talking a book page, not a manuscript page, and that should add up to, on average, about 250 words.
So, as well as cutting your description to the level you feel comfortable with, and peppering it throughout the action, how else do you think you can go about polishing it?
Don’t overuse adjectives and use more strong verbs. The key word here is “overuse.” I’m not saying never use adjectives. I’m just saying your writing will be stronger with moderate usage.
Take a look at SEGMENT No.2 below. Here we have a weak example of description, with lots of adjectives, and a strong example of description using a moderate amount of adjectives and strong verbs.
The darkness of the thick grey low-hanging clouds made the massive decorative rocks in our backyard look like animated gravestone-giants.
The thick clouds hung low and shadowed our backyard. The decorative rocks doubled in size and morphed into gravestone-giants.
Can you see how the strong verbs in the second example help to eliminate the need for all the adjectives in the first one?
Now it’s your turn.
Combine the following texts so that the description is peppered throughout the dialogue and it uses less adjectives and more strong verbs.
Patti Smith begins a Jimi Hendrix cover on clarinet. A tragic mellow vibrato goes through Lykabettus Theatre like a sad wilting willow. The crowd is quiet and still. The guitarist’s jazz scales moves the clarinet’s tune like warm approaching rain. The rhythm guitar sounds like a heartbeat, and the pounding makes the crowd become a big loud mess of chaos. Patti puts the clarinet down, comes over to the microphone and sings in her deep, gruff, aching voice, If you can just / get your / mind together … The slow four/four beat of the guitar and Patti’s voice is like quaking earth. It moves through my legs, body, arms, making my throat tight. Synchronic drums, bass and distorted guitar move alongside the rhythm on the beat, creating an eruption of sundry emotion within me that makes cold and awestruck tears fall down my cheeks.
“Have you ever seen Patti Smith live before?” I said.
“Nah. This is my first time. I’m not entirely impressed yet,” he said.
“What? How can you not be impressed? She’s an icon; a genius.”
“Yeah, but, you know. I guess I’m just not as into it as you.”
“You should just close your eyes and listen. Can you hear that?”
“That. Shh ... Feel it.”
Need more self-editing advice? Why don’t you check out Jessica Bell’s editing guide: Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.
Jessica Bell is an Australian award-winning author, writing and publishing coach, and graphic designer who lives in Athens, Greece. In addition to her novels and poetry collections, and her bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series, she has published a variety of works online and in literary journals, including Writer’s Digest.
In addition to the above, she is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Vine Leaves Literary Journal & Press, a singer/songwriter/guitarist, a voice-over actor, and a freelance editor and writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide such as MacMillan Education and Education First. She is also the coordinator of the Writing Day Workshops which take place throughout the United States on a regular basis.
Before all this she was just a young woman with a “useless” Bachelor of Arts degree and a waitressing job.
All images courtesy of Julie Lewis