Do you interrupt your story with description?
Scott and I have dealt with the topic of description several times in 2015 and more recently in Part of this two-part series back in September 2018. Click on DESCRIPTION in the categories to bring up those past articles.
Descriptive details are an essential part of stories. If you want your reader to participate in your story, then you need to set up the story, and this means including some details of the setting (the where and when) and characters (what they look like) so the reader can visualize your story.
However, I frequently see problems with descriptions manifest in two ways: (1) failure to provide sufficient description or to provide it soon enough, and (2) too much description in one place that it interrupts the story or brings it to a complete standstill. Description is essential, but as with the other four narrative modes, it must strike the right balance.
Let’s quickly refresh ourselves on the five narrative modes used for storytelling: Description, Exposition, Dialogue, Thoughts, and Action. There are exceptions, and not all stories employ all five directly. An all-dialogue story, for example, will often fold in some bits of other modes into the dialogue.
Even if your story takes place in a mist-enshrouded location, at an unspecified point in time, and with disembodied voices for your characters, then you still need to convey those facts to your reader somehow—because if you don’t then it’s probably not a story many would enjoy reading.
Exposition and Description are related in that they both of these modes provide information. The difference is that Description tells us what the senses experience (and therefore Description is not limited to the visual details), while Exposition provides other informational details, such as character and story background and explanations. Both can stop the story, although exposition is less intrusive if it’s interesting and doesn’t go on too long.
Take a look at the following short dialogue.
“Where am I? Is anybody out there?”
“You’re dead, Jason.”
“Is this Heaven or Hell?”
“That all depends on you.”
“Who are you, and why can’t I see anything but this mist?”
“None of that is important.”
“It is to me.”
Those seven lines of dialogue yield a lot of information and indirectly provide the reader with description and exposition. Along with those we find the three important elements of any good story: setting, character, conflict. On top of that, the passage poses several story questions: Where is Jason? Why aren’t the answers to his questions important? Who is talking to him? How did he die?
Your ultimate goal as a writer should be to engage your reader from the beginning and to keep your reader engaged. Here’s a wonderful example of that in opening paragraphs of “Clarion of the Dead” by Sophie Jupillat Posey, published in the January issue of Fabula Argentea magazine.
“Take me to where people go when they die.”
Clarion extended his homemade tickets in his scuffed hands. The people at the front of the bus laughed nervously; the bus driver’s non-existent eyebrows climbed up past his widow’s peak.
What narrative modes are used here and what story questions are posed? Do we see bits of setting, character, and conflict? A good hook?
Let’s look at the next five paragraphs. Note how the author continues to unfold the story while interspersing just enough bits of description and exposition to add information without interrupting the story’s flow.
“Joke’s over, kid. Where do you really want to go?”
Clarion nodded his head insistently. He extended his hands further, the tickets so close to the driver’s face he leaned back slightly.
“No joke. I want to go to the place where people go after they die. Daddy said I could go check it out.”
He had, in fact, asked his dad multiple times, to travel by train, boat, plane, and car. But it hadn’t gone anywhere. It’s hard to travel when you’re a kid. People get suspicious. His dad had shrugged and put his head in his hands, as he often did, and said, “Whatever, Clarion. Do whatever you like. Go find your place. Leave me alone now, please.”
So Clarion had made his own bus tickets.
The author has added more story questions and given us some information about Clarion’s father as well. I think you’ll agree that the author has engaged us and made us want to read on to learn more.
Here’s the link to the story in case you’re interested in reading the rest of it: CLARION OF THE DEAD
If you feel so motivated, look at the openings of the other stories published in that issue to see how those authors handle these elements and engage the reader.
We sometimes receive several story submissions a day at Fabula Argentea. While I currently read every story in its entirety, I can often tell just by reading the opening whether I’m likely to decline it. Our submissions have slowly been increasing, and I may reach the unfortunate point where I simply do not have time to read every story in its entirety. If that becomes the case, then I will be far more likely to read and potentially accept those that start strong.
I find that writers who pay close attention to their story openings often carry through with a good story to the end. Conversely, authors who write weak openings may end up telling a good story, but too often end up with a weak story overall. Let’s put it another way. The most competent writers pay attention to all parts of the story from beginning to end.
When it comes to novels that I choose to purchase to read, I’m going to following the same logic: weak opening, not likely to buy it.
But I don’t want to dwell too much on openings because I’ve talked about those a lot on this blog. I want to focus on description as it applies to all parts of the story.
I said above that description stops the story. It does this because description has no action associated with it. Some readers like lengthy descriptions, especially in fantasy and sci-fi settings where little may be familiar. More description is needed to bring the world to life for the reader. Well-done description makes sure the reader is not left blind and guessing, but at the same time it ensures that it doesn’t intrude on the forward momentum of the story.
Look at some of your own writing. Have you stopped your story unnecessarily at any point with too much description?
I do want to emphasize “unnecessarily.” There are times when we want to stop the story to create tension. The right kind of description thrown in might be the perfect way to do that. In such a case, the reader should be able to understand your purpose. He or she may curse you for it but will appreciate your writing skill.
Consider the following thought quoted from my April 27, 2015 blog post on description: “If the reader is more than lightly aware of the description, then it’s not done right.”
This applies to any amount of description. Expertly done description will enhance the story and not call attention to itself; poorly done description will scream at the reader and can destroy your story.
You should always be asking yourself one important question, whether you’re writing a short story or a novel: Have I turned my reader on by providing enough description to understand and appreciate my story, or have I gone overboard and turned my reader off by bringing my story to a dead stop? And as you ask yourself this continuously as you write, don’t delude yourself into believing that a reader will love your wonderful descriptions no matter what.