Editing for Effective Description
How much or how little description you use can be a matter of style, genre and personal preference. It is also a matter of balance. Too much description can take the focus away from what is happening in the plot; too little can leave your reader unable to imagine your story.
Read through again and look for each place where you are describing a setting, person or object. Make a note of the page number and rough locations (top of page, 3rd paragraph down) here:
If your descriptions are a paragraph long or more, ask yourself: how much of this detail is important? How much would my character actually notice? This may be a place where you can cut unnecessary words. If your descriptions are quite short, ask yourself if you've chosen the right things to describe. How evocative are your descriptions?
You're not aiming to make them longer or shorter, you're aiming to make them more effective. Work through your descriptions one at a time and after you have made any changes, re-read the scene to make sure it all makes sense.
Some ways to improve your description:
- Vary the senses used - include an interesting smell, texture or taste.
- Look for what makes the place, person or object unique. Rather than describing mundane things like the bed in the bedroom, focus on the thing that makes it this character's bedroom (e.g. bars on the windows or pink flowers on the bedspread).
- Use similes and metaphors, but not for every description.
- Describe aspects of your characters other than hair colour, eye colour and height. The raspy-voiced woman who constantly runs a hand through her hair is more interesting than the tall blonde woman.
- Think of the deadly Godfather who shows his softer side by stroking a pet cat. One or two contradictions like this can be fascinating, but use them sparingly.
Describing Character Emotions (Showing, Not Telling)
Highlight anywhere you have used the words "she felt __________" or "he felt ___________". Highlight any words that mean angry, excited, happy or any other emotion.
Instead of telling the reader how your characters feel, you want to show us.
You can show us your character's emotions in a few ways:
- How do they behave? (action)
Verbs are amazing things. There's a big difference between a person who leaps up, a person who stands up, and a person who stumbles to their feet. You can use action to show the emotions of all your characters, not just the POV character. Look for what each character is doing in that moment and see if you can change your description to show how they feel.
- What do they notice? (observation)
It's rare that someone will notice every item in a room - we pay attention to things that are important to us in that moment. A person entering a friend's house might notice how the furniture has been rearranged or what food has been prepared; a police officer entering a suspect's house will look for quite different things (clues that relate to their case); and a kidnapping victim being taken to their captor's house may only be looking for an exit. Look at what you've chosen to describe in the scene where your character is feeling something. Do your descriptions match their state of mind?
- What do they say? (dialogue)
Consider the difference between "can you put that back, please?" and "don't you dare touch my stuff". In the same way that dialogue tells us a lot about who is speaking, it can tell us a lot about how that person feels. If your characters are talking in this scene, make sure their speech matches their emotions.