“I’m halfway through The Private Life of Jane Maxwell, and it is RIVETING, by the way. I think the vivid, comics-inspired visual descriptions play a big role in making it so immersive, so I was wondering, do you have any tips or tricks for knowing when to stop the action and focus on painting a more detailed picture for the reader? What’s your opinion on how much description is too much or too little?” – submitted by F-BOM member
First off, thank you so much! And what a great question. I mean, if I’m honest, a lot of this feels pretty intuitive by this point, but when I stop to think about it, I’d say that a good rule of thumb for integrating description into a high-action scene is to focus on the moments of change. So this could be as simple as characters moving from one part of the room to another/drawing a new weapon, or as big as a stunning reveal by the baddie that shakes the protagonist’s worldview. Anytime that you change the situation your readers will likely need to be reoriented anyway, but also (and more important) these are often moments where your protagonist is going to be reacting emotionally. It provides an almost natural beat to pause and reflect, just a little, before diving back into the frenzy.
Too much description, for me, would be either when the description is placed at a bad moment in the scene (so not really a problem with the description itself, but the function it’s serving in that particular time and place), OR if the description has already gotten it’s meaning across, but doesn’t stop there. A lot of times people think that vivid descriptions mean you need to give every detail, but I’ve found that it’s usually better to give a few specific, impactful details, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. It’s okay if something doesn’t look EXACTLY the same in your reader’s mind as it does in yours–so long as the truly important details are there, and the image carries emotional weight. Too little is harder to pin down, just because WHY and WHERE you place description is determined by so many different factors. But as a general rule, if the book is feeling “flat”, I’d say it’s probably a lack of emotionally relevant descriptions. Because good descriptions will convey the image accurately, but the ones that really stick with you will reveal nuance about both the viewpoint character, and whatever they’re describing.
And this sounds obvious, but if there’s a cool mental image you want readers to have, make sure you show us that image. I remember critiquing a piece once, and the way the author TALKED about the scene, he clearly had a cinematic image in his head of the villain drawing his guns–only, in the actual prose, the viewpoint character was distracted and had turned away, and by the time the focus went back, the weapons were already out. Those kinds of mistakes are easy to make, so it’s important to keep an eye on what you actually include. Remember, no one is going to see it if you don’t make it happen “on screen.”
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