Set the mood. Show, don’t tell. Perfect your prose. Engage your readers’ five senses. We’ve heard the same advice over and over. But what we many of us really hear is describe, describe, describe.
So what do we do? You guessed it. We describe everything in an attempt to cover the bases and engage our readers. We want them to see exactly what we see. But being overly descriptive brings so many problems into our novels! It’s a perilous rope we writers walk. What if we’re wasting our time and words describing the wrong things? Think of all those spare words that could be of better use elsewhere in your novel. How do you find your balance?
If you think you may be over-describing, chances are you’ve succumbed to one or more of the following:
- Purple prose
- Cookie-cutter characters
- Repetitive words and phrases
- Sections of story that bore your readers to tears
- Passive voice
DON’T WORRY. THIS CAN BE FIXED.
The first thing we need to do is examine our work with an objective eye. That means peel your heart out of the writing. Time to be cold and ruthless.
Set your novel aside for a couple months. Doing this lets you slip out of the role of the writer and gives you a reader’s perspective. As you’re reading along, you happen upon a scene where you get descriptive. How do you know if you really need to paint the image for your reader?
Ask yourself this very important question:
Is the t-shirt black just because it’s black?
Huh? I know that sounds ridiculous. That’s what I ask myself before describing everything, (not just t-shirts). And really it’s just a simplified version of this question:
Does the object/place/person you’re describing have a significant impact on your character’s emotions, the overall plot, or character arc?
If you say “No” or even “Maybe,” nix the descriptions. There isn’t even room for “No, but…” Your answer must be “YES, because…”
That’s right, every description must incite a feeling for the reader, otherwise it’s just unnecessary fluff weighing down your novel.
So, is the shirt black just because it’s your favorite color? Or is it black because you want the reader to know the person wearing it is goth, without coming right out and saying they’re goth? If so, props on SHOWING and not TELLING! The black shirt description is necessary in the latter case. Your considering the readers emotions, not your own.
There, that should help boil down your story a little and spare up some words.
Follow these useful tips to fix those problem areas I bulleted above:
- For world-building, only state the most important aspect of your unique world first–the part you want the reader to feel strongest about. The rest of the awesomeness can be folded in over time. Doing this keeps your reader from skimming. Less is more!
- If you STATE how a character IS (passive voice) you wind up with a cookie-cutter. That means you’ve rolled out the dough and used a stencil to form them. You need to engage the reader’s imagination. Roll out the dough, but let your reader cut the character themselves. The impact will be infinitely more powerful.Ex: His cane struck the wooden floor with a dull thump as he hobbled toward the hearth. Did you interpret an old man, hunchbacked, and a lonely, small cabin? But I didn’t say any of those things…or did I?
- To identify purple prose, ask yourself if the writing is so fancy it calls attention to itself rather than what’s supposed to be happening in the scene.Ex: The man stooped over his varnished walnut cane and hobbled toward the orifice of fire. Okay. #1. We don’t need details of his cane unless you want to stress the fact that the old man is rich. #2. WTF is an orifice of fire? Purple prose, that’s what. Sometimes it’s not so easy to spot….
- The find and replace function is a quick, easy way to fix repeated words. Clichés sometimes sneak from your brain onto paper, especially if your scrabbling for more word combinations not already used. But these become more pronounced after setting your WIP aside for awhile, so no harm, no foul. *snicker*
We love our words. Yes, they’re hard to kill. So if you haven’t heard of a story bible yet, time to create one. It’s a safe place for all those notes, words, and paragraphs you’ve refused to kill, so you can still use them later.
DESCRIPTION IS A TOOL. DON’T LET IT BECOME A WEAPON.
I hope you found this post useful! As always, feel free to leave me a comment.