“How Much Description Is Necessary for Your Story?” by Joan Y. Edwards
Descriptive words in stories help readers visualize and sense the setting for the characters and plot to emerge. Other times descriptive words determine how we visualize characters and their physical, mental, health, and disabilities…flaws and foibles…their actions and outer thoughts and their inner subtext. They help readers experience the tone, the myriad of emotions and moods of the story.
Here’s why the descriptions of setting in a story is important:
The when and where in the setting may explain the reasons why the conflicts arose between the characters at that very moment in time. Other parts of the setting are the social and/or political rules of the time, place, temperature, precipitation, sunrise, sunset, stormy, sunny.
A good description of setting with environment, date, and place, gets and maintains an emotional response in readers. It makes the story seem real. An effective story setting connects the characters to the plot, and ties together the story’s themes and events. Readers visualize your story as a movie in their minds. When readers are engaged in your story’s settings, they read and anticipate how your story will unfold. They keep reading. They do not put the book down until it is finished.
As an author you may ask yourself, how much description of the characters and place should I give in my story?
Does your description go on and on and on so much that it tempts your readers to close your book and not care what happens to your main character? Ouch! That would hurt.
Good Story Company says: Don’t let the pace of your story suffer because you love all the many words you used to describe something.
What are guidelines for discovering if you have too much, too little or a Goldilocks – just right amount of description?
I hope the ideas below help you place a Goldilocks amount of description in your writing and prevent overload of descriptive words.
Of course, your descriptive words should answer one of these classic questions about the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of your story.
In your writing
- Is every detail of your description important to understand the plot, characters, or the tone of your novel?
- Does your description of characters, obstacles, and settings help the plot unfold and capture and maintain the interest of the reader? Do you need to add more description to keep your story flowing?
- Does your description reveal the cause and effect of characters and events in the plot of your story?
- Does your story engage readers by describing not only the where and when of the story but also the why? Understanding the why of the story helps readers visualize and imagine not only the characters, actions, and place in each scene, but also gives the integral clues as to the emotions the characters are showing or the subtext of what they are not saying and are trying to hide from others. K. W. Weiland states that good story subtext allows readers to observe and learn without being taught. For me, subtext is tricky. It’s hard to explain sometimes. I believe that subtext is what the character’s body language and actions show you that their words deny.
- Do you increase the severity of obstacles with difficult complications and offset with meaningful peaceful moments to build intensity? These life-changing events for the character demand description with a purpose to add to the suspense of the plot, characters, and tone of the story.
- Do you keep the interest of reader peaked with questions you put in their minds and delay giving them the answers until the perfect moment? Do you leave them with cliffhanging questions at the end of chapters?
- As recommended by AutoCrit.com, instead of hitting all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel, weather, do you choose two or three senses for your focus in each scene?
- Does your description enhance the character’s actions and reactions and add to its intensity rather than camouflage the situations? Does it bring your characters to life?
- Does each adjective have a good purpose for being there?
- Do you use adjectives wisely – not too many in one sentence.
- Do you have adequate description of place for your story?
- Is every word in your sentence essential to understand your story’s plot, characters, or place? If your story doesn’t need a particular word, even if it sounds wonderful to your ears and is your favorite word of all time, don’t include it.
- Does your description raise the intensity your story?
- Does your description indicate the tone of your novel?
To help you discover and pinpoint the tone of a particular scene in your story, envision it as a movie. What kind of music would be playing in the background. Something dark, funny, light, mysterious? The music used in movies helps viewers feel the emotions of the characters. Do the same with your descriptions. Tone explains the attitude which the author/narrator has about the character or event. It’s depicted by the character’s words, body language, actions, facial expressions, hand gestures, and even the high or low pitch of a character’s voice. Here are a few tones: Formal/informal, friendly/unfriendly, humorous/serious, optimistic/pessimistic, concerned/unconcerned, encouraging/discouraging, cooperative/uncooperative, fearless/fearful and many others.
Here are 7 excerpts from novels for you to edit: Did you find words that you believe should be left out? Did you find paragraphs that pulled you into the story?
Please share with me in the comment area, which of these seven authors listed below did the best job of pulling you into their story to understand the place, visualize the character, and move the plot along?
- Excerpt from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien,
- Excerpt from Diary of Anne Frank
- Excerpt from Fairy Tale by Steven King
- Excerpt from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
- Excerpt from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Excerpt from “Walden Pond” by Henry David Thoreau
- Excerpt from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
In the comments, please share a link to a passage from your personal favorite author and tell me why you like them.
- Autocrit.com. “5 Ways to Fix Excessive Descriptions:” https://www.autocrit.com/blog/tmi-5-ways-fix-excessive-description/
- Good Story Company.com. “Writing Descriptions:” https://www.goodstorycompany.com/blog/writing-descriptions#:
- Harry Bingham. Jericho Writers.com. “How To Write Descriptions And Create A Sense Of Place:” https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-write-descriptions-and-create-a-sense-of-place/
- Joan Y. Edwards. “For Reader Impact: Clarify meaning and Vary Use of Long and Short Sentences:” https://joanyedwards.com/for-reader-impact-clarify-meaning-and-vary-use-of-long-and-short-sentences/
- Joan Y. Edwards. “How Many Words Should Your Sentences Contain?” https://joanyedwards.com/how-many-words-should-your-sentences-contain/
- Joan Y. Edwards. “To Add Tension Use Short Sentences and Words:” https://joanyedwards.com/to-add-tension-use-short-sentences-and-words/
- Joslyn Chase. TheWritePractice.com: “Subtext Examples: 7 Simple Techniques to Supercharge Your Scenes:” https://thewritepractice.com/subtext-examples/
- LitCharts.com. “Literary Devices and Terms: Plot:” https://www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/plot#
- Meera Shah. “Tone In Writing; The How, Why, And When:” https://jerichowriters.com/tone-in-writing-the-how-why-and-when/
- Self Publishing.com. “Setting of a Story: How to Create an Immersive Story Setting:” https://selfpublishing.com/setting-of-a-story/
- Sophie Playle. “How Much Description Should My Novel Have:” https://www.liminalpages.com/how-much-description\
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6 thoughts on “How Much Description Is Necessary for Your Story?”
Excellent guidelines, Joan. I tend to gloss over details because I see them in my mind’s eye but fail to share it with readers.
Thank you for posting,
Joan B. Reid
Dear Joan Reid,
Thank you for writing! I am excited that you think my guidelines are excellent. I hope they help you. I must be little like you. Sometimes, people who read my draft of novels say I don’t have enough description.
Enjoy writing. You are good at it.
Never Give Up
Joan Y, Edwards
this is a great post. I agree, subtext is hard to describe. And the “why” is often the most important part of a story! Thanks, Joan.
Thank you for writing. I am honored that you believe this is a great post. When we are watching a movie, it’s easier to tell what subtext is because we can see it. When we are writing, we have to see it in our minds and then describe it so our readers can understand it. Tricky. Tricky. But we can do it, right?
Never Give Up
Really an exceptionally help article. Way to go! And there you go! As a former journalist, I love seeing journalism’s most essential guideline applied to fiction!
Thank you for writing. I am honored that you think my post was an exceptionally helpful article. You continually amaze me with your writing! You are a good friend.
Do something fun for you!
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