Have you ever read a book so chock full of description or backstory that you got lost in the middle of the characters’ dialogue? I sure have. And, as a budding book reviewer, that’s what makes me drop the review an entire star—in regards to rating. When writers go down the rabbit hole for far too long, or describe a room with an overkill of flowery prose, it can make a potentially great book just good, or a good book become bad.
Some readers like lots of description, but I promise they’re far and few in between. Why? Because we have movies and video games to get the visuals we want. Our world is overflowing with visual onslaught, and now, writers must pull in readers faster than their predecessors.
What Makes A Great Book?
Most contemporary great books have excellent pacing, unpretentious dialogue, and just enough detail to bring the reader into a different world while still allowing her/him to use her/his imagination. Reading can often be a form of escape, but readers don’t want to be told word by word how they’re supposed to get to this imaginary world. Many of us have a little rebel inside, vying for a bit a freedom—especially when it comes to the arts.
An Editor’s (And Reader’s) Perspective
Last year, I edited 16 books—fiction and non-fiction [HIRE ME HERE]. Not once did I ask my clients for more descriptions of a building or a room…nor did I ask them for more backstory. Often, I advised they cut down on some of the book’s description in order to increase the pacing of the book. Unless I’m editing a technical manual, there is no need for overkill on descriptions. (Yes, there can be exceptions, but that’s not my point in this post.) I also read about 75 books last year, in all different genres, and continued to develop my eye for a great story versus just a good story. The best books were those with minimal descriptions.
As a writer, I tend to hold back on description until the very end of revisions. In the YA genre especially, characters are expected to have descriptions so that fangirls and fanboys can draw fan art for all the cool authors. But in other genres, there may be more of a focus on action, suspense, romance, etc. Therefore, shorter descriptions of characters, or none at all, may be more appropriate. And of course readers want to know what the setting looks like, but erring on the side of less description and then waiting for feedback from beta readers would be an easier fix than crying because your editor wants you to delete a whole page.
In the book Hooked by Les Edgerton, it’s advised to focus more on putting characters in action rather than worrying about their eye color, weight, height, hair color, etc. I’ll quote Edgerton, as he addresses character description in his writing:
“In fact, my own writing contains very little description of any of my characters—it’s virtually nonexistent—yet, for years I’ve asked readers if they can describe a character I pick at random from my stories, and invariably they come up with a detailed description, no matter which character I might choose. When I tell them I haven’t described the character mentioned at all (as I hardly ever have), they’re surprised, and some swear that I did, even going so far as to drag out the story and look for where I’ve included the description. They never find it.” -Hooked, page 141
What’s A Writer To Do?
So, what to do? From experience as a writer and editor, I advise not worrying so much about description as much as plot, pacing, and dialogue. When my editors go through my manuscripts, they make notes when I need more description. I also have some great beta readers who will let me know if I need to add more detail or if I left some questions unanswered.
However, if you just can’t see yourself lessening your story details, you can get in the habit of making some cuts as you rewrite. I coached a good friend of mine through his dissertation, and he taught me about something I’d never before encountered: “The Boneyard.”
The Boneyard is a “grave” or placeholder for all that wonderful, genius prose that just doesn’t work for your manuscript. However, the cool thing about this type of grave is that words can be resurrected from it. Sometimes we’ll make cuts but decide that our original idea (or a variation of it) works better. The Boneyard comes to the rescue! When I make any big cuts, I place them in that book’s Boneyard in case I need to pull from it later. It saves me from going through old drafts, trying to pinpoint what I had originally written. I either keep my manuscript’s Boneyard in a separate Word document, or I create a new note in Evernote.
Backstory is another offender. It truly is an art to be able to seamlessly weave in backstory while still keeping pacing intact. I read a really cool book the other week, but it had the largest chunks of backstory I’ve ever seen in my life! In fact, that was the number one complaint in all of the reviews. I’m talking about pages of backstory or a character flashback in the middle of dialogue. At times, it was so bad, I almost forgot what the characters had been talking about. Almost none of the extra descriptions and backstory added to the novel whatsoever.
For that very reason, I make a point to let my clients know if they are at risk of the same thing. I want their books to be the best they can be—with witty banter, fresh but limited descriptions that sharpen the storyline, and a fictional world that has never before been seen. I’ve been a backstory offender before, so I’m speaking from experience. What’s cool about cutting unnecessary backstory is that you can place the cuts in The Boneyard and pull it out later to write a novella or character extras for fans. Just because your words have been cut from your manuscript, doesn’t mean that they suck or need to “die.” No! If they’re decent, they can be reused in other ways.
Here’s what Les Edgerton has to say about backstory and details:
“What’s not done today is the immediate helping of backstory right after that (implied) ‘once upon a time.’ We don’t fill readers in on the protagonist’s life for the past ten years leading up to the story’s [actual] beginning. We also don’t spend a lot of time describing the village he lives in, the street he walks down each day to work, his waking habits, or the copious details of each room he enters. Or every bite of the breakfast he ingests or the primary colors of the songbird outside his window.” -Hooked, pages 9-10
Edgerton goes on to say that what matters for a story’s beginning is the inciting incident, and then things continue to build from there. Less really can be more, especially when it comes to fiction. It’s like a man perhaps finding a modestly-clothed woman more mysterious and sexy than one who’s wearing daisy dukes and a bikini top. Maybe not the best example, but you get the idea.
Let’s Wrap It Up
The thing is, we live in a different society and culture than the one thousands of years ago—or even a hundred years ago—where long and flowery descriptions were thought to be signs of creative genius. Readers today want something fast, something different, something special. And writers need to deliver on those terms, meaning that too much description and/or backstory just won’t cut it. The plot needs to be solid, conflicts need to be resolved, and unless readers just want a fluffy cotton candy read, the imagination needs to be engaged. Give readers more feelings than visuals, and I promise they’ll remember your book more than ones overshadowed by boring details and a dump of backstory. Why? Because if you can make them feel a certain way—a way in which they resonate with your characters—they won’t give two craps about whether your main character has red, blonde, black, or purple hair.
Give readers FEELS! All the FEELS!
What Do YOU Think?
Okay, blog readers. Time for you to sound out. What do you think about descriptions and backstory? Have you read—or written—books with way too much? Do you like all the additional details? What’s too much for you? What’s too little? Comment below!