Shelley Widhalm

Balancing description in story

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on October 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

Description in a novel or short story, if not handled correctly, can slow the pace or movement of the novel from start to finish.

Action keeps the story moving, while description gives story place and setting. It identifies character. It adds layers of meaning.

I’ve read books heavy in back story and detail, with some of the descriptions leading to tangential thoughts and more description, so that I lose the sense of the story. I’m working too hard at reading with little plot to pull me along.

At the other extreme, if there is too much action, I don’t get a sense of the world of the story, feeling like I’m reading a white canvas with too little to absorb.

Description is necessary to flesh out the story, moving it from an outline of this happened and then this happened into something three-dimensional and real. Description adds life through the use of the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling and hearing.

To provide a balance in description versus action, choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Verbs are important in description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple.

There are a few things to avoid in description, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
  • Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, while distancing the reader from what’s being said.
  • Using general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a cardinal or robin.

Description can, just like action, add excitement to a story if the language is crisp, purposeful and intriguing.

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