The Function of Description
by Eleni Papanou
I just deleted a book from my Kindle that I didn’t finish. It was written very well and the plot was intriguing, but I lost interest mid-way through. Just as something interesting was about to happen a barrage of details would follow, most of which weren’t necessary to the flow of the story. It pulled me out to the point where I didn’t care what happened next. It was unfortunate as the author’s concept was truly intriguing and her characterization was strong.
You can have the best story, great characters and action, but if the pacing is off, a reader will sense it and may lose interest in the story. The trick to smooth pacing is ensuring you have the proper balance of narration, description, dialogue and action. Too much of any of the above, and the book will feel off balance.
Striking the Balance
Some authors go crazy with the description. Everything from what a character ate for dinner to what clothes she’s wearing to every decorative detail in a room is written down. A way to tell if you’re putting in too much description is to ask whether the description is moving the plot forward or adding to the characterization. If it does neither, it’s probably unnecessary.
As my background is in screenwriting, I have the opposite problem and write too little description. I have to go back in and add some. A fast pace doesn’t work any better than a slow pace. Some breathing room is necessary between active scenes so the reader can have a moment to absorb what happened.
The following three examples are places where I look to add in description. If you put in too much, you can also use this as a guideline to see what parts of your description are superfluous.
A man enters a restaurant frequented by hunters. The author describes the scene by showing us hunters sitting at their tables, wearing flannel shirts. She next goes on to describe the stuffed animal heads that are mounted on the wall. Alongside a deer head is a very large rifle. When the man who entered the restaurant spots it, he recalls a repressed memory. The description leads to a psychological trigger; therefore, it’s pertinent to the story.
Imagine a scene of a garden with flowers in bloom and the sun shining, etc. The author does a beautiful job of making us feel like where there as a woman picks flowers in a park. Then…just as the woman takes a whiff of a white rose, a stalker grabs her from behind. In this example, the garden description and color of the rose created contrast along with an element of surprise for both the character and reader.
A cloudy and stormy night would best be explained by a character struggling against the gust of wind to keep her umbrella in her hands while complaining how the weather ruined her dinner plans for the night, etc. Or maybe she’s suffering from seasonal affective disorder and is on her way to a support group. Her reaction would thus blend in with the description, making it much more powerful. Set your description around a character’s mood for emotional scenes.
Let the Subtext Drive the Description
Effective description is loaded with subtext. It adds to the characterization and drives the plot forward. It also adds intrigue because the character is reacting to his or her environment, which makes a reader ask questions and wonder what will happen next.
The active use of description also makes the writing more engaging. Basically, every scene in a story should drive the plot forward. Some might argue that plot isn’t as important as characterization, particularly in literary fiction. I don’t see why that should make any difference, other than some readers just enjoy reading pages of description. That’s the beauty of books. There’s room for all types of writers and readers.
Personally, I prefer a book with a solid plot and great characterization. Most readers do as well as those are the types of books on the top of the bestseller list for fiction. To keep your readers wanting more, ensure that every description you add leads somewhere, or you’ll risk losing them.
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Genre - Paranormal Mystery
Rating – PG13