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The Goldilocks Approach To Writing Description: Not Too Little, Not Too Much

Writing Description

Breaking and entering issues aside, the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears can teach writers quite a bit about writing descriptive passages in their short stories, essays, novels, and other books. Some readers love long, descriptive passages that linger on every tiny detail of a scene. Others hate description and want snappy dialogue that moves the story along.

Keep in mind that your story is your story; you’ll need to discover the “right” amount of description that works for you personally. Here are our tips for descriptive writing that engages, energizes, and excites.

When More Description Is “Just Right”

It’s perfectly acceptable to include lengthy descriptions. Just be sure that the description serves a real function. Certain circumstances call for leaving descriptive passages in—or even adding more!

When description multitasks. Sometimes, an in-depth description is needed to demonstrate character traits (a man stages an elaborate ritual every morning when he gets ready for work, a woman spends an excessive amount of time gazing at a tree that reminds her of her mother).

When description lets readers experience the action for themselves. Description that engages the five senses is critical (in moderation) for allowing readers to “come in.” Physical sensation invites readers to experience the action for themselves, to taste what your characters are eating, or feel the caress of the wind. Too little physical description and your readers will become disoriented, especially during long passages of dialogue.

When description echoes or creates mood. Some description serves multiple purposes: letting readers into the scene and setting a mood. Gray clouds with chilly mist puts readers in a different mind-set than sunshine and blue skies. Description can also create a meaningful setting.

When description gives pause. When your characters are chatting, a bit of description can sometimes be necessary to indicate that a character is pausing to think of a response. (He watched the bluebirds winging across the sky. Then, he spoke.)

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When description is surprising, unexpected, or unique. Some books, like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, are conceived with lengthy descriptions in mind. In Morgenstern’s book, the characters live in a world of magic circuses, and her lush, lavish descriptions make that world come alive. Without indulgent description, the book might have lost some of its density, artistry, and weight.

When Less Description is “Just Right”

Some authors cut all but the most vitally necessary descriptions from their final drafts to make sure their writing is fast-paced and taut. Whether you love description or hate it, there’s often good reason to scrutinize it with a focused editorial eye. Sometimes, less is better.

When your dialogue is slumping. Some writers add too many physical cues when characters are talking. This slows down the pace of an otherwise strong scene, creating too many unnatural pauses, forcing the reader to trip up on what would otherwise be a normally paced conversation.

When nature calls. We’ve all heard many editors complain about stories and books that start with long, stagnant descriptive passages. It’s wonderful to describe the natural setting of your story—but don’t settle for long-winded descriptions if strong action is a better choice.

When you’re “writing too hard.” In first drafts, it’s great to experiment with crazy metaphors and similes. But if your description is so “out there” that it doesn’t mesh with the tone of the rest of your story, then you should probably consider cutting it.

When you’re writing a sex scene. Unless you’re working in a genre that prizes detailed sexual encounters, approach descriptions of sex with caution. Here are tips for a “less is more” approach to sex scenes.

When you’re beating a dead horse. Once your reader gets the fundamental message in the subtext of your description (the sunset is pretty, the bird is small), consider moving on to another element in order to deepen and broaden your reader’s perspective. No need to make the same point three different ways.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: If you had to pick a side, would you choose less description or more?

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