Tag Archives: subtext

How Much Description Is Necessary for Your Story?

cute, alluring, enticing, dazzling and other adjectives in green, orange, and red colors
Thank you, Narciso1 and Pixabay for allowing me to use this image.

“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.

Question words in balls hanging from celing
Thank you Gert Altman and Pixabay for allowing me to use this image.

In your writing

  1. Is every detail of your description important to understand the plot, characters, or the tone of your novel?
  2. 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?
  3. Does your description reveal the cause and effect of characters and events in the plot of your story?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. Does each adjective have a good purpose for being there?
  10. Do you use adjectives wisely – not too many in one sentence.
  11. Do you have adequate description of place for your story?
  12. 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.
  13. Does your description raise the intensity your story?
  14. 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?

  1. Excerpt from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien,
  2. Excerpt from Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Excerpt from Fairy Tale by Steven King
  4. Excerpt from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  5. Excerpt from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  6. Excerpt from “Walden Pond” by Henry David Thoreau
  7. 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.


  1. Autocrit.com. “5 Ways to Fix Excessive Descriptions:” https://www.autocrit.com/blog/tmi-5-ways-fix-excessive-description/
  2. Good Story Company.com. “Writing Descriptions:” https://www.goodstorycompany.com/blog/writing-descriptions#:
  3. 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/
  4. 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/
  5. Joan Y. Edwards. “How Many Words Should Your Sentences Contain?” https://joanyedwards.com/how-many-words-should-your-sentences-contain/
  6. Joan Y. Edwards. “To Add Tension Use Short Sentences and Words:” https://joanyedwards.com/to-add-tension-use-short-sentences-and-words/
  7. Joslyn Chase. TheWritePractice.com: “Subtext Examples: 7 Simple Techniques to Supercharge Your Scenes:” https://thewritepractice.com/subtext-examples/
  8. LitCharts.com. “Literary Devices and Terms: Plot:” https://www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/plot#
  9. Meera Shah. “Tone In Writing; The How, Why, And When:” https://jerichowriters.com/tone-in-writing-the-how-why-and-when/ 
  10. Self Publishing.com. “Setting of a Story: How to Create an Immersive Story Setting:” https://selfpublishing.com/setting-of-a-story/ 
  11. Sophie Playle. “How Much Description Should My Novel Have:” https://www.liminalpages.com/how-much-description\

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 Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
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Paul Peditto, Award-Winning Screenwriter and Playwright Shares Ways to Improve Writing

Paul Peditto, Award-Winning Screenwriter and Playwright
Paul Peditto, Award-Winning Screenwriter and Playwright

I took a playwriting course with Script University in November 2020 with Paul Peditto, award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and director. I learned a lot. He has a way of making you feel great about your writing and showing you ways to make it even better.

I am very honored that he agreed to let me interview him on my blog!!! Feel free to ask questions or leave comments for him.

Welcome, Paul. Thanks for letting me interview you today. My readers and I are excited you are here.

You’re welcome, Joan. I’m glad to be here with all of you. Let’s get started.

1. Where were you born? Where do you live now? Where would you like to travel and why?

Born in Ithaca, New York. Living in Chicago since 1988. I would SO love to travel right now, but there’s the little matter of COVID. When I get two shots in my arms, it’ll be wings up. Europe? South America?

I almost don’t care, so long as it’s out of this Twilight Zone episode of a cage I’ve been living in since March.

Travel, yes!

2. How did you get interested in writing screenplays?

I wasn’t school trained. I wrote a play about my drug-addicted girlfriend who died. That was well-received in Chicago and elsewhere. My brother, Christopher, wanted to make it into a movie(with him in the lead role, of course!) so I was tasked with writing a screenplay for the play. There were no computers then so I counted out the spacing on a screenplay and made those scene, action, character tabs on my manual typewriter to adapt the play in screenplay form. It got made years later with Calista Flockhart in the lead role. She got famous with Ally McBeal shortly after and our little movie–which started out in our tiny theater in Chicago–ended up on Entertainment Tonight. Made over 2 million though we never saw that money. That’s another story!

3. Who helped you believe in yourself as a writer?

My brother, Christopher, ran Igloo theater in Chicago so the instant I wrote a new play he put it up. Without him, I would have had no idea if the plays were any good. Seeing the effect your writing has on an audience is an incredible experience and one of the true joys of being a playwright. Every night, it’s new. So yes, that helped me develop my own style and compass. If you don’t have faith in your own stuff, who else will?

4. What are you writing now?

Not much. COVID era, very little getting made. No theaters are open here in Chicago. I made some Xtranormal movies (animated) on YouTube this summer. Check ’em out on my Youtube page.

5. Which is your favorite genre and film?

Don’t have a fav genre but TAXI DRIVER is my fav movie. And that says everything you need to know about me!

6. What is your favorite screenplay you wrote and why?

CROSSROADERS was the most complete script. This was about casino thieves. Although it never got made, it won semis at Nicholl Fellowship and was optioned by Haft Entertainment–makers of Dead Poets Society. it came very close to being made. There was a budget and a director attached to it.  It looked good to go. Unfortunately, ROUNDERS came out just before it and the producer got cold feet. Now it makes a really effective door stop.

Just shows you with Hollywood, how close you can come and it still not happen. This goes back to the writer’s compass I was talking about.

I know that’s a good script and if it was cast with name talent it could and probably would win awards. But without an agent to push it and needing millions, it sits on the shelf. It’s what drove me crazy about the L.A. movie scene and why I eventually moved into writing micro-budget stuff like CHAT, the last movie I made in 2015. There comes a point where as a writer you just want to make SOMETHING without needing the money or approval of others. So you write a play you can produce yourself or a micro-budget film you can make for low money.

7. What is the difference between a novel, a stage play, and a screenplay?

This isn’t a question that can be answered in a nifty short paragraph. maybe the better question is the difference in how these formats communicate.

Film is a VISUAL medium. Juxtaposing images for emotional impact. The Novel has INNER MEANING and MONOLOGUES that film can’t have(not without voice over, anyhow) so all that has to be turned into images if you write for the screen. For instance, a 30-page passage in AMERICAN PSYCHO about business cards plays as TWO pages, two minutes in the screenplay.

Stage plays are about the WORD. You suspend disbelief. We’re not in China like a movie, we’re just implying it. But all that stagecraft is to support the words of the playwright. 

Playwright, for me, has always been higher on the priority pyramid than screenwriters. Screenwriters drive up in clown cars. Tennessee Williams will forever be Tennessee Williams.

8. What questions do you ask when deciding which screenplay contest to enter?

I concentrate on major contests. Nicholl Fellowship, Sundance Lab, Austin, maybe Page awards. Go to moviebytes.com to see a master list of all the contests.

Nicholl Fellowship is the Academy Awards of screenwriting contests. Easily the most important.

When I got semis at Nicholl (which means your script is down to 150 out of 10,000+) I had 25 producers, managers and agents email me the next day. They hawk the Nicholl list. This is how it works in the usual L.A. system. Get the agent, get the manager, get assignments, etc.

Screenplay contests are good because you don’t need an agent to apply. Anything you can do proactively, without permission from L.A. is a good thing.

9. How do you decide to write a new screenplay?

I am THEME driven.  I write a script because the subject matter means something to me. Someone near me was arrested recently for marijuana. (Yes, can you imagine that in this day and age?) They’re trading weed stocks on Wall Street and people are rotting in jail for growing marijuana. This bothered me enough that I spent 5 months writing a screenplay about it. This is my sole concern when organizing characters and story. It’s the only way I can justify spending months on a project because it means something to me. And hopefully, it means something to the audience. That universality–that it impacted me and, therefore, will impact the audience is really the key for new screenwriters and playwrights to consider.

10. What three craft books do you recommend screenwriters study?

SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder, is the big structure book these days

SCREENWRITERS BIBLE, Dave Trottier, is the format book.

ONLINE RESOURCES, nofilmschool.com, indiewire.com, johnaugust.com

11. What are the steps to writing a screenplay?

To answer this would take 15 weeks of a 3-hour per week class. The cute fast answer would be to read as many screenplays as possible on IMSDB.COM, learn the craft. Also, understand that it’s never done, even when they’re paying you. There will always be rewrites, even when they’re shooting the movie!

12. How is writing a screenplay different than writing a novel?

I’ve only written one novel so I’m not qualified to answer this. This goes back to what i said before about film being a VISUAL medium and a novel being a place of WORDS and INNER THOUGHT. 

13. How many sentences is too many for a line of dialogue in a screenplay?

This question reminds of that scene in AMADEUS when the King tells him his opera had “too many notes.” And Mozart responds there were exactly as many notes as was necessary to finish the opera. There’s no one model for creativity. If it works, it works. You know it, too. Sure, you have to concern yourself with length more in a screenplay–how many four-hour movies did you see lately? While with a novel, it’s a novel at 300 pages or 1300? There are no 1300 page screenplays.

14. What writing exercise do you use to to help you write a scene ?

I outline my screenplays extensively. It might take weeks, but I figure out the story beats ahead of time, and get them down on paper.

When I start writing I’ve basically already written it in my head. If I get stuck anywhere, I can move to the next scene in the outline. While I’d recommend outlining, that’s my process. Writers have to do what’s natural for them so outlining might not be right for some. You could argue that you want more spontaneity, You want your characters to speak to you organically. And that’s fine…as long as they keep speaking to you! Nothing worse than getting to page 23 and they stop speaking to you!

15. Different screenwriting books talk about beats. I get confused. Would you please explain what a beat is and how it is helpful.

The definition of a beat is the smallest actable unit in a scene.  There could be multiple beats–which means which character is driving the scene, dominating it. So, beats within a scene, scenes within a sequence, sequences within an act, acts within the screenplay. These are structural units. like Russian nesting dolls.

16, What is subtext and how can writers use it to deepen the impact of their writing?

Subtext is saying it without saying it. it’s saying everything BUT the thing. it’s the opposite of exposition where you tell the audience exactly what the character is thinking. 

17. What does it mean when they say the writing is on the nose?

It means exposition. Means it’s too on the head, too obvious, too stated and predictable. Always try to surprise your audience.

18. If screenwriters would like for you to critique a screenplay, what questions do you ask yourself to help you evaluate it? 

Every script has different upsides and down. Some scripts are genre-based, meaning bigger budget thriller, action, etc. Some are character-driven–more Art House, movies you’d see at Sundance, smaller stories told in a drama, dramedy or comedy.

Commerciality matters, of course, but a good story rules the day in the end. Characters too, gotta “give a shit” and care about the journey, have an emotional investment or just plain fascination. Originality by definition means I’ve never seen it before. That’s rare indeed. in the end writers should NOT be worrying about what others are going to say about their work. They should be writing down to the core of what matters to them. You can’t go wrong if you stay close to that honesty.

Paul, thank you very much for answering my questions. My readers will be very excited to meet you and learn from you.

Links to Paul Peditto’s movies and book

Chat https://www.amazon.com/Chat-Rush-Pearson/dp/B076D1YJZW

Chat https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/chat/id1046842034

Jane Doe https://www.amazon.com/Jane-Doe-Calista-Flockhart/dp/B00000JWVX

cover of The DIY Filmmaker - Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood by Paul Peditto
The DIY Filmmaker – Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood

Paul Peditto and Boris Wexler’s book: The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood

How to Find Paul on the internet

Paul Peditto’s Website https://www.scriptgodsmustdie.com/

Interested in getting Paul to evaluate your screenplay?  Check out his Consulting Services https://www.scriptgodsmustdie.com/screenwriting-services/

Contact Paul Peditto: https://www.scriptgodsmustdie.com/contact-us/

Articles about Scriptwriting by Paul Peditto https://scriptmag.com/script-gods

Youtube https://www.youtube.com/user/paulyvegas/featured

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Script-Gods-Must-Die-115364311814682/

Linked-In https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-peditto-94236930/


Paul Peditto is an award-winning screenwriter and director.
His low-budget film Jane Doe starring Calista Flockhart won Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Six of his screenplays have been optioned including Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poets Society). He recently wrote and produced the micro-budget feature Chat, currently distributed on iTunes, VUDU, YouTube, and Dish Network by Gravitas Ventures.


Over the past decade, Mr. Peditto has consulted with over 1,000 screenwriting students around the world. He has been Featured Speaker at Chicago Screenwriters Network, Meetup.com, Second City, and Chicago Filmmakers. He has appeared on National Public Radio and WGN radio, and reviewed in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, L.A. Times, and the New York Times.


Peditto is an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Columbia College. Under his guidance his students have written and produced films that have appeared in major film festivals, have semifinal placings at Nicholl Fellowship, and have won awards and screened at film festivals around the country.  His new book, The D.I.Y. Filmmaker is available through Self-Counsel Press on Amazon.


Thank you for reading my interview with Paul Peditto.  He is willing to answer your questions, so please leave your comments and questions. We look forward to reading them. Feel free to share his interview with your writer friends.   

Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2009-2021 Joan Y. Edwards

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