Story Description: Finding the Right Balance

by Jami Gold on February 23, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Landscape at sunset with text: How Much Description Is

In writing, we always talk about finding the right balance of elements for our story. Characters can be too unlikable, or they can be too perfect. A character’s emotions can be lacking—leaving readers feeling distant—or their emotions can feel overwhelming and melodramatic.

Even when it comes to writing craft, we can go overboard. There’s one popular series I didn’t enjoy because the prose had too much voice, due to an overly chatty narrator. Or some stories suffer from too many adjectives or sentence fragments.

For every aspect of our story, we have to find the right balance. One element I struggled with initially was description, especially for settings.

Too little description can leave our readers floating without an anchor (which can cause many problems). Too much description can drag our story’s pacing.

So how do we find the right amount? How can we include enough description to avoid a “talking head” problem yet cut the description readers would skim over and ignore anyway? *smile*

The Different Types of Descriptions

The term “description” can cover everything from setting details to character actions. The sun glinted off the breaking waves and Her brow furrowed are both descriptions. So is His heart hammered in his chest.

Obviously, those are different types of descriptions, but they can all be over-done—or under-done—so I’m going to do my best to touch on the issues for several of the different types. No matter the type of description, we might struggle with finding the best balance.

The Different Purposes of Descriptions

Description in our stories fulfills different purposes. If we figure out the purpose, we might have a better idea of when we need it and when we don’t.

Anchoring a Reader:

As Mary mentioned in her guest post linked above, context is necessary at the beginning of scenes—a where and when. This context might be basic—outside vs. inside or “Months later…” Or it might be more specific—”Rain pattered on my umbrella and splashed into puddles at my feet.”

Either way, the purpose here is to not confuse the reader, which would take them out of the story. Given that purpose, we can guess that this purpose is important and usually needs to be addressed in our writing.

Showing and Not Telling:

To immerse the reader in the story, we might choose to include sensory details like temperature, the feel of the wind, how bright the surroundings are, etc. We might show a character’s personality by focusing on what they notice. We might show a character’s emotions by including descriptions of what they care or are conflicted about.

The purpose here is to make the reader experience the story. Between all the different types of descriptions, a huge part of our story will fit this purpose.

However, depending on the pacing of our scene, we have to decide if this is the right time and place for more description. Even in an action scene, there’s a big difference between descriptions of fights that focus on the struggle with short sentences—or longer descriptions that give details of where each punch lands and how the character is thrown off-balance, etc.

Creating Voice or Mood:

Depending on the point of view of our story, an omniscient narrator might comment on the sweeping fields before a battle or a character narrator might share their snarky impression of another character’s car.

The purpose for either of those approaches is to create a storytelling style: sweeping or snarky, ominous or sarcastic. Used in moderation, these types of descriptions can add flavor to our story.

Giving Readers a Breather:

Sometimes after an intense scene or event, we might step back as a storyteller and allow descriptions to create a moment of reflection. A description of the field mentioned above after the conclusion of the battle could emphasize the devastation or reiterate the costs in a “sequel” after the scene. Often these descriptions focus on layers of emotions.

These types of descriptions are meant to slow the pace, so if that’s not our intention, we need to rethink our inclusion of descriptions of this style.

Mixing and Matching Purposes Is Good

Many times, we can make aspects of our writing do double or triple duty. This is especially the case when writing descriptions.

Anchoring description can be given in a character’s voice and show aspects of their personality or their situation. Reflective descriptions also frequently create a mood to maintain tension in the story. Etc., etc.

If we can’t make descriptions do at least double duty, we need to question whether we should keep that description, especially if its purpose falls under one of the later categories.

For example, if a description is giving readers a breather—and that’s it—it’s highly suspect. We should be able to include a pause that also shows a character’s emotion or creates a mood.

Signs That We Might Be Overdoing Our Descriptions

Those categories above are roughly in order of most to least important for including in our story. However, every one of them can be overused.

Overuse usually comes down to two problems:

  • Repetition—which can refer to anything that will make our reader think “Okay! I got it already!”
    Her house was modest in the last scene set there too.
    He’s grumpy enough to maintain a running monologue of his complaints.
    With all those visceral responses, she’s either really attracted to him, or she’s having a heart attack. *smile*
  • Slowing the Pace—which can refer to anything that interrupts the flow or narrative drive of the story or encourages readers to skim.
    If all the information is needed, we might think about how we can strengthen the point of view, add variety to the type of description in the section (mixing action with settings, etc.), or break up the information to avoid the feel of an information dump.

Potential Problems with Anchoring a Reader:

Even though this type of description is usually necessary, we can still go overboard. We could repeat an idea too many times, or we could give more details than needed.

Potential Problems with Showing and Not Telling:

I’m a big fan of using action beats instead of dialogue tags. (She tapped her foot. “I don’t think so.” instead of She said, “I don’t think so.”) Each one of those mini-descriptions in action beats gives us an opportunity to show our characters in their environment and hint at their emotions, etc.

However, in a fast-paced dialogue scene, too much of that type of description—or a reflection of how they feel about every revelation or development—can slow down the pace.

It’s also possible to “overwrite.” If our character is doing a simple task, such as taking a shower, we don’t need to give readers a play-by-play of every step (turn the faucet handle, adjust the water pressure, wait for the water to warm up, etc.).

Plus, sometimes a situation simply isn’t important enough to justify showing any details. Telling is okay in certain situations too.

Potential Problems with Creating Voice or Mood:

This style of description is what often trips up writers for “trying too hard.” They might go overboard on trying to create lyrical prose or use too many similes or metaphors, or as I mentioned at the beginning, I think it’s even possible for a style to have too much voice.

We need to keep our genre, our story’s style and tone, and pacing issues in mind before deciding to add more than a sentence or two of this type of description at a time.

Potential Problems with Giving Readers a Breather:

As I mentioned above, this type of description slows down the pace of a story. Readers do need breathers occasionally, or the faster paced sections start to lose their effect. Also, we do need to include opportunities to emphasize emotions and add meaning behind our story’s stakes.

However, we need to be very careful when slowing our pace and make sure that’s really what we want to do. Why are we giving readers a breather?

If it’s to make readers reflect on our characters’ dire straits, that will maintain a base tension carrying readers through the downtime. But if it’s not emphasizing something that’s a problem or question in our story, the narrative drive can be lost.

Signs That We Might Be Under-Utilizing Our Descriptions

Personally, I find it easier to fix problems of not-enough description rather than too-much description. But I’ll do my best to touch on some of the problems of not-enough descriptions. *smile*

Signs that we might need more description include:

  • Beta readers, editors, or others express confusion about the setting (where, when, who’s there, etc.).
  • Our characters are missing reactions to plot events.
  • We’re missing opportunities to let our characters’ voices out to strengthen descriptions and make them more active or interesting during non-high-tension sections.
  • Our characters feel too distant, without an emotional connection to readers.
  • Our story is missing the cues necessary for readers to recognize the mounting tension or dread as we build to the climax.
  • Readers miss important foreshadowing or setups and therefore don’t understand later payoffs.
  • Our story is missing a reaction sequel (even just a sentence) after a scene.
  • We’re summarizing important story elements instead of experiencing them along with the characters.
  • Our story doesn’t have enough mood- or world-building for the genre or artistic style.

Don’t Worry about Getting It Right in the First Draft

As with many things writing, we’re often not going to get it right during our first draft. We might over-describe on some parts of our draft and under-describe on other parts.

During the drafting stage, it’s almost impossible to get a feel for our story’s pace. So it often won’t be until we edit our story that we can tell when our descriptions are bogging down or when they’re too thin to give readers context.

Also, feedback from our beta readers and/or editors is essential for picking out when the thoughts in our head don’t make it onto the page. So by no means is this post a definitive instruction manual on how to tell which way we need to go find the proper balance.

However, by becoming aware of the different purposes of description—and the uses and pitfalls of each—we’ll hopefully have a better feel for what to watch out for. And with the signs for being out-of-balance, we’ll hopefully have a head start on recognizing when we might be going off-track. *smile*

Do you struggle with including the right amount of description? Do you tend to over- or under-write descriptions? Have you noticed any of these signs in your work? Can you think of other purposes for descriptions beyond what I’ve listed here? Can you think of other signs of over- or under-writing our descriptions?

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23 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee February 23, 2016 at 7:40 am

Description is one thing that I add in after the first draft. I’ll have tidbits in the first draft, even entire scenes that are pretty much equal to what the final draft will be, but those function primarily as examples. It’s sufficient for me to know the tone and voice that I’ll need in writing the story and to double-check for consistency later.

Sometimes I start a story knowing my narrator and setting well enough to put those examples in the beginning. But usually, I know enough to give a gist…and then figure out more as I go. By the time I’m about 10% into what the full story will be, the examples are on the page somewhere. (When I don’t know what I’m writing yet—plot, setting, character, whatever—writer’s block always hits there. That’s how I know how long the story’s gonna turn out.)

I’ve had a few fans call me things like “Robin McKinley without the description”…but I’m also heavy on character thoughts/emotion stuff. What the character decides can be more important than what they do.

But even with that leaning toward internal description more than external, I still get “???” from betas, sometimes, who don’t have sufficient context to follow something. And I always reveal some story-world details by their effects rather than by stating them outright.

As with any feature in writing, having more than 2 of it in a row is a flag that something’s missing, that something can be added/deepened/strengthened. Doesn’t matter if it’s 3 lines/sentences/paragraphs of infodumping, description, dialogue with the same type of tags… 3 in a row is a signal that things aren’t balanced.

Now, some situations do warrant such lack of balance, but that affects your target audience. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 6:36 am

Hi Carradee,

Thanks for sharing your experience! Even though I mentioned in the post about not worrying about “getting it right” in the first draft, it’s always good to emphasize that point and add more reassurance. 🙂

Also like your point about there’s not necessarily the “right” amount of description–there’s just the “right” balance for our genre, voice, tone, target audience, etc. If we change the balance, that doesn’t necessarily “break” anything. It might just change those aspects. 🙂 Thanks for sharing those insights!

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Julie Glover February 23, 2016 at 11:39 am

I struggle with setting description, because I’m personally okay with characters being in some room somewhere with some things around them. However, when I started realizing I could use setting to deepen character’s point of view and establish the mood of a scene, I recognized a missed opportunity. I’ve been working on it, but I’m not an expert yet. I rely on critique partners to tell me if I’m giving enough or too much.

Love your tips here! Thanks for more to think about.

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 6:39 am

Hi Julie,

LOL! Yeah, I’m the kind of person whose imagination will fill in a lot of blanks, so I’m okay with something like “classroom” or “bedroom” as a description. I don’t need to know more unless it’s unusual. 🙂

But as you said, if we think of description doing multiple duty, including more of the “right” type of description gives us additional opportunities to tell our story. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 23, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Haha I definitely don’t do enough descriptions, so I will have to add them in during the editing phase. I especially like that point on using description to give the reader a breather. Some stories, though exciting, are just a bit tiring to read because of the lack of down times in them. But for me, a tiny bit of description but with a fun, relaxing dialogue scene, would be more helpful to me as a reader than a whole passage of description with no dialogue. Dialogue keeps things alive for me, and I can learn more about the characters and their relationships with each other whilst getting a rest at the same time. 😀

Oh but I’m a lot more interested in reading descriptions of a character’s emotions, psychological state, or personality, though; it’s just setting description that tends to bore me (sorry for those who like to write their settings in detail!) I enjoy reading descriptions of delicious food, though. My least favorite kind of description would be the type of clothes—they’re so dreadfully dull to me. 🙁

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 6:50 am

Hi Serena,

Yeah, as writers, we tend to think that any breather is bad–that if the reader could close the book, they might not open it again. But that’s why I wanted to emphasize how we can use these pauses to maintain (or even increase) tension, even if it’s just mentioning the stakes or emotional conflict. Like, for the dialogue example you gave, a light bantering between characters could increase the reader’s motivation for them to get together. 🙂

Oh! Great example of food descriptions! There are some sub-sub-genres that focus on recipes or food within a story. I just read a story the other week that focused on a protagonist baking with a specific purpose (following a recipe for X that claimed to make gossip flow, etc.). 🙂 (And I’m with you on the clothes–LOL!) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 26, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Wow baking with a purpose! Haha.

As for the breathers, I would prefer a relatively low tension scene or chapter, because I want to be able to rest and easily detach from the book so I can go back to my other life duties, lol. But I know some other readers want to be addicted. Maybe I’m strange in that I only want the book to be gripping (with nice breaks in between) rather than to be relentlessly compelling and addictive, lol. As much as I adore books, I don’t want my reading to make me neglect or even sacrifice the other things I need to do. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Nah, readers aren’t allowed to have real lives. 😉

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Serena Yung February 27, 2016 at 8:21 pm

Hahaha

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Aura Eadon February 23, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Perfect timing, Jami. I’m editing my novel and I am still trying to achieve the ever-elusive balance. This post is so helpful, thank you so much!

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 7:31 am

Hi Aura,

I’m happy to help! And I fear this is an ever-continuing struggle, as every story will need to find its own balance. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Eve Anderson February 23, 2016 at 4:16 pm

You are right. Sometimes I didn’t buy some books that I interested, because the “blurb” are so vague that you can’t decide. I even ask for more info & they say NO. Read the “blurb” again. So, I don’t buy the book

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 7:32 am

Hi Eve,

Ah yes! Blurb description writing is its own category–one I’ve struggled with for years. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Glynis Jolly February 24, 2016 at 7:05 am

I had read in a post not too long back (might have been one of yours), that a scene shouldn’t be started with dialogue, especially if the setting has changed. Description should come first in a scene, for most cases, to help the reader. This makes perfect sense to me. How much of this description, of course, depended on what the pace of the scene is.

Some of the more contemporary books don’t have enough descriptive passages for me. I end up wondering where the scene is really taking place and a little confused about how the characters are feeling about what is going on at that time in the story. Sure, it isn’t exactly talking heads either because there’s little clips put in around the dialogue, but it’s too sketchy for my liking.

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Jami Gold February 24, 2016 at 7:39 am

Hi Glynis,

I know that starting a book with dialogue was a trend that many frown on now–because of the confusion issue–but you bring up a good point about how the same problem could apply to the beginning of every scene. Personally, I think we can start with dialogue, but orientation details (from the speaker to the the setting) should be woven into the first couple of paragraphs.

Like you, I’ve gotten confused by books before, even those that have gone through significant editing, so really, this balance is just “the best we can make it” rather than something we can make “perfect.” 🙂

And that’s a good point about the importance of sharing how our characters feel about events, especially in certain genres. For me, I feel distant from characters if I don’t see some of their thoughts or feelings. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Ellie Holmes March 12, 2016 at 10:26 am

Thanks for a great post Jami. I often find when I’m doing a first draft read through and with a little distance you can spot places where more description is needed and some where less is called for. Often the description has already been written even in rough form but is in the wrong place so it’s easy enough to polish it up and move it. Getting description or indeed any aspect of writing to do double or triple duty is always so satisfying. I love the times when that happens.

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Jami Gold March 14, 2016 at 1:40 pm

Hi Ellie,

Yes, distance can certainly help as well! 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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