Why I Err On The Side Of TOO LITTLE Description While Writing

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.
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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. 
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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.

Minimalist 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. 
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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
Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

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. 
MY edits in my book proof.

MY edits in my book proof.

The Boneyard

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.”
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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.
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Backstory

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. 
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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. 
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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
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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!
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! 

Arguments for Using Synonyms

A few weeks ago, I hosted a good friend, author Robin Woods, on my blog. She provided us all with a very helpful, organized chart of synonyms for “said” and “walk.” Click HERE to read the post and download the cool chart.

For the most part, many people received the FREE guide with high levels of gratitude. In fact, it has been my most viewed post this year. But there were also a surprising number of naysayers and I feel the need to provide a rebuttal.

In all the informal and formal training I’ve had in the English language (heck, Spanish, too!), I have been taught to avoid word repetition. Hence, the writing exercises we love to hate: exercises with synonyms.

Of course there are exceptions—there always are, right? But in the past two decades, as my writing grew from something I was “good at” to my passionate pursuit and career, I’ve noticed that I appropriately edit out repeats in my writing or become annoyed as a reader when I spot word repetition.

One of the best writing teachers I ever had was my twelfth grade English teacher. Not only was he snarky and witty, but he was a damn good teacher. I remember a particular assignment for a book report. We had just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (an all-time favorite), and were told to write a two page, analytical paper. The length made it sound all too easy.

Upon bringing the first draft back to class, our teacher announced that we would be editing the paper—tearing it apart would have been a better description—in order to identify any words that had been trampled to death through the horrible habit of replication. Being an eighteen-year-old-know-it-all, I thought Please…this’ll be easy. I’m a good writer. But that morning, I was devastated to see my own red pen at war with the crisp white paper and black letters in my “awesome” essay.

247486941993359037_qmzGczGP_cImage via Some eCards.

We weren’t even allowed to repeat the same verb! You have an “is” already? Well then cross out the one in the next sentence, because it’s not allowed. Not only did we use more dynamic verbs, but we also learned how to rearrange sentence structure in order to improve the flow of our prose. Once a few peer editors, and myself, combed through my paper, it was stellar. I mean…one of the best papers I had ever written in high school. And the language wasn’t “flowery” by any means. It simply read well and expressed my thoughts more succinctly than I could have imagined.

That ingenious assignment made me a better writer and editor. But it also cursed me with an eye that now catches repetition and becomes easily irritated. And I know…we ALL are guilty of this writing crime and sometimes I’m just lazy and don’t care. However, when writing something that you want to be great, be careful with what you repeat.

I will sheepishly admit that my most repeated word is “was.” Ugh. Still trying to work on that one.

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My mug shot for overuse of “was.”

Recently, I read a good, short article on Create Space about such practices. Click HERE to read it. I think the example she gives is awesome.

So what exactly did those Negative Nellies say about my blog post on synonyms? Oh, you know, things like…

“It’s inadvisable to use synonyms for said.”

“Why would it be necessary to say it in another way if a character ‘said’ it?”

They even quoted Elmore Leonard (God rest his soul) at me: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character, the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. “

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go, also has something to say about dialogue tags. He argues: “Especially avoid using adverbial qualifiers for dialogue tags; instead, stick to said for almost all of your tags.” (pg. 31)

And yeah, I get it. I really do.

But may I ask this: what if my character is about to face certain death if she is heard aloud? Wouldn’t the reader want to read this:

“I can’t do this without you, Geoffrey. You have to show me what to do,” she whispered as they crouched behind a couch, waiting for the sound of footsteps to dissolve.

Instead of:

“I can’t do this without you, Geoffrey. You have to show me what to do,” she said as they crouched behind a couch, waiting for the sound of footsteps to dissolve.

I don’t know…maybe I’m thinking too much like a screenwriter, eager to show my reader what is happening in every aspect that I can. I want you to know that my character is whispering—not just saying something—but whispering it. Or pleading something. Or replying to the question that was just asked. Maybe she’s even breathing a statement, indicating that she is so tired or anxious about something, she can barely speak.

This is NOT necessary in every case and can certainly deter from the story if overdone. But my argument is that using “said” every time should not be an absolute. There is creative freedom to be had by all of us crazy writers.

crazy workImage via Some eCards.

Personally, when I read fiction that draws me in, it typically doesn’t have “said” repeated often, and the writer uses feeling words that describe how something is being said. Everyone is different, but that’s what I like and what flows best—to me.

Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Merlin, by Stephen R. Lawhead. Though “said” is used more often than not throughout the book’s conversations—in the proper way, of course—this passage contains other dialogue tags that are appropriate and do not deter from the story.

We rode on a pace or so, and then I reined up. “Pelleas, listen carefully to me now. You have found me and brought me back to the world of men, and I thank you for that. But it is in my mind that you will soon curse the day you begged my service. You will wish, perhaps, that you had never wasted a day in search for me.”

“Forgive me, my lord, but your own heart will prove traitor before I do,” he swore. And I knew he meant it with all that was in him.

“What I have to do will earn no man’s thanks,” I warned him. “It could be that before I am through I will be despised from one end of this island to the other, with every hand raised against me and those who stand with me.”

“Let others make their choice; I have made mine, my Lord Merlin.”

He was in earnest, and now that I knew he understood how hard it would be, I knew I could trust him with both our lives. “So be it,” I said. “May God reward your faith, my friend.”

See? Only ONE “said” in that and I think Lawhead’s writing is brilliant! Honestly, though, what kind of writer would I be if I weren’t willing to hear every side? I’m curious to know thoughts that you have about using synonyms for “said” and synonyms in general. Be nice, but speak your mind. Let’s have it!

Until next time…

Cheers!