Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Background Noise

A good story makes you see, hear and feel everything the characters experience. However, think about it: if you live next to a busy road, you eventually stop hearing the traffic. Heck, it goes much further than that. You don’t feel the fabric of your clothes on your skin unless you think about it, you don’t hear every minor hum or whistle. Your body blocks out all that extraneous stuff so you don’t go crazy.

The same thing is needed in books. Yes, we want to experience what the characters are going through, we no more want to have every over-wrought, over-written piece of information that occurs in the character’s “life” than we do our own.

Description in stories is a delicate balance. I’ve read books where the author has to tell you the day every freckle popped up on a minor character’s face, or gone into detail about every piece of furniture in a room the characters pass through and never return to. I’ve also read the complete opposite and it creates a disconnect, another situation you want to avoid.

In order to be truly evocative, you have to be able to describe well. This can lead to bogging down. “I walked into a kitchen painted a blinding white, my shoes clipping on rusted tile and kicking into the forgotten groceries more than once.” Pick one thing and describe it, then get into the other stuff as it becomes important. Make the reader feel what’s going on, but don’t weigh them down. They have to be able to move through the story or they’ll end up skipping places and maybe missing something that’s important.

My advice is to watch for information dump and large blocks of text. Highlight them and read them separately from the book. Maybe even paste them into new documents and change the font so it seems like you’re reading something new. And of course, get beta readers who to tell you if any part throws them out of the story.

Well, that’s my two cents. Do you fear over/under description? Do you have any good methods to combat it?


  1. Great post. I think the key is to make all description relevant, if you follow the rule that you shouldn't include a word that doesn't move the story foreward. Describe things about the character that tells us who they are (ie they might have a mullet and be an 80s throwback), or describe settings to produce the desired effect in the reader (fear, tension, relaxation). Description is definitely something I struggle with a lot.

  2. I've been called out for the occasional "info dump". My problem is, that I dispersed it as much as I could and at some point, information does indeed need to be relayed to the reader. I guess that we live in a strange world where people are used to reading things like "Fifty Shades of Grey" in which no information needs to be relayed because there is no plot.

    So the question becomes...if one wants to sell a lot of books...maybe the reader of the modern world requires material that has no content but which ultimately makes them aroused because there isn't enough arousal going on out there in real life? That seems kind of yucky to me. I hope that there are readers out there who will have the patience to actually assimilate information, even if it is given in morsel sized bites.

  3. I'm an underdescriber. I hate reading too much description, so I go the other way. I guess I need a good beta reader to tell me if it is truly too little. (One of these days I'll find a good beta reader...)

  4. I agree, and sometimes a sentence can hold too many descriptive words. That being said, I think the biggest problem is people switching up which senses matter. Sometimes smell or touch have a more powerful effect than scenery. The first line in my novel is "Chrissie Fox could taste the metallic sting of time on her tongue." it's enough to let the reader know something out of the ordinary is going on without just saying that she's traveled through time. Okay, now I'm ranting, but this is a great post!

  5. I totally agree with you. Anytime I'm reading and see a large paragraph of text with no dialogue, I usually skip it. Describing things as they become important is definitely a good solution. :) Great post!

  6. I do wonder if I've got some overly descriptive spots in my MS. I've got beta readers going over it at the moment, and thus far I'm not hearing anything along those lines.


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