From Scott:

One important aspect of your writing that is frequently overlooked is description. The ability to paint a scene in a reader’s mind is not something that will come naturally to most writers. The tendency is either to put in too much detail, as is the case even with some best-selling authors (in my humble opinion), or to not put in enough. Either can sink your story. Put in too much detail and your readers may become bored; don’t put in enough and you can leave them wondering what’s happening, or worse yet, making up their own details. In a worst case scenario, the reader has downloaded the free sample copy of your book and will simply move on without buying. You just lost a purchase.

The best place to start pointing a finger is right at yourself, so I’ll begin by talking about having a lack of detail in your writing. As a reader, I was frequently frustrated by books that seemed overly saturated with flowery words and that tried to create a Picasso in my head every time the scene changed. I understood the need to paint a basic picture but found myself skipping entire paragraphs (or more) in an effort to get to the action. For that reason, when I began writing, I went in the complete opposite direction. I hardly described the scenes at all.

Scant descriptions can be very frustrating for the reader, and actually tough to detect as a writer. I could see the scenes in my head, so the lack of detail didn’t affect me. When proofreading, I still pictured the scene exactly as I had intended. However, anyone reading the same scene would be left in a state of confusion, wondering what was going on. Consider the following passage, altered from the opening of my upcoming sci-fi novel, The Omega Sacrifice:

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The leaden clouds rolled across the midnight skies of Samkol Province, obscuring the dim light offered by Torlos 3’s moons and bringing with them the promise of rain. Although the village of Silantha was a farming community, none would dare cultivate the countless acres that surrounded a dark residence an hour’s walk south of the town. Most Torlosians, a superstitious people by nature, feared the lands around the house were cursed.

But on this night, one man dared to violate the abandoned dwelling. The dark, hooded cloak hid the gray skin and forehead ridges that marked his Torlosian features. With a barely perceptible nod and a set jaw, he slipped from hiding.

He padded to the porch, setting his feet down carefully to minimize the creaking of the untended timbers. As expected, the door was locked. His hand glided down along his pants leg to the cleverly folded tool thrust down inside his boot. Moments later, the way into the house stood open.

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Based on the first paragraph, we know that the skies are cloudy, and the action is taking place at night at an abandoned house. The second paragraph gives us a brief insight into the man’s features. Then the passage dives right into the action.

But it leaves us, as readers, with many questions. What is the surrounding terrain like? Is it flat? Hilly? Are there trees, or is this wide-open farm ground, like Kansas? Is it a hot night, or has winter arrived? What does the house look like, on the outside and the inside? The questions roll on and on. If a reader has to stop to wonder about these things, you have just pulled the reader out of the story. You want the action to go on in the reader’s mind, as if she was watching a movie. If you skimp on details, that can’t happen. The reader wants more.

At the other end of the scale is the writer who puts in too much detail. I suppose this is less egregious of a writing sin than not putting in details at all, since the reader will be aware of everything the point-of-view character can see, hear, and smell. But again, if you get carried away, it’s a bad thing. Readers will get bored with tedious accounts of the landscape every time you set the scene. They’ll either begin to skip ahead, as I did, or put the book down entirely.

Now let’s look at the same passage, but with too much detail.

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The leaden clouds rolled across the midnight skies of Samkol Province, obscuring the dim light offered by Torlos 3’s moons and bringing with them the promise of rain. Overhead, a flock of shrieking birds streaked by, invisible in the darkness. The smell of rain hung in the air, bringing with it the promise of an uncomfortable night. The fallen leaves rustled about the floor of the small glen, covering the sound of the man’s footfalls. In the field ahead of him, endless waves of long grasses in untilled fields bowed under the gentle southern breeze. Several small animals, startled by the man’s presence, scampered away into the darkness. Although the village of Silantha was a farming community, none would dare cultivate the countless acres that surrounded a dark residence an hour’s walk south of the town.

The forsaken dwelling was once the home of Tlana Gotarok. She was the founder of the resurgence of the Cult Of The Ancients, which had embraced the evil Nulovians over two millennia earlier. A bloody civil war, fought between the followers of the Nulovians and those of the Goddess, resulted in countless deaths before the Cult was eliminated. Just two dozen years ago, Tlana brought the Cult back to life, and she had used this rebuilt home as her sanctuary. Most Torlosians, a superstitious people by nature, feared the lands around the house were cursed. None would come within a mile of the house, if they could manage.

But on this night, one man dared to violate the abandoned dwelling. The dark, hooded cloak hid the gray skin and forehead ridges that marked his Torlosian features. The man moved up to the edge of the grove. The first few drops of rain fell, pattering against the hood of his cloak. His breath steamed in the cool night air. He paused in the shelter of the tree line to study the rolling hills and bide his time. As he had expected, there was no one around. The fools feared this place. None would disturb him this night. With a barely perceptible nod and a set jaw, he slipped from hiding.

He padded to the porch, setting his feet down carefully to minimize the creaking of the untended timbers. Paint hung in long streaks where it had peeled away from the rotting wood. Weeds grew up through the cracks in the porch. The filthy, spider-web-covered windows, however, remained unbroken. As expected, the door was locked. His hand glided down along his pants leg to the cleverly folded tool thrust down inside his boot. Moments later, the way into the house stood open. The cloaked Torlosian melted into the home’s interior and latched the door behind him.

Full of detail, certainly. But too much detail. I could have set the scene with much less than what I put in there. After you’ve repeatedly hit the reader over the head with your descriptions, I don’t think you’ll like the outcome.

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Now let’s try something in between.

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The leaden clouds rolled across the midnight skies of Samkol Province, obscuring the dim light offered by Torlos 3’s moons and bringing with them the promise of rain. In the field ahead of him, endless waves of long grasses in untilled fields bowed under the gentle southern breeze. Although the village of Silantha was a farming community, none would dare cultivate the countless acres that surrounded a dark residence an hour’s walk south of the town. The forsaken dwelling was once the home of Tlana Gotarok. She was the founder of the resurgence of the Cult Of The Ancients, which had embraced the evil Nulovians over two millennia earlier. Just two dozen years ago, Tlana brought the Cult back to life, and she had used this rebuilt home as her sanctuary. Most Torlosians, a superstitious people by nature, feared the lands around the house were cursed.

But on this night, one man dared to violate the abandoned dwelling. The dark, hooded cloak hid the gray skin and forehead ridges that marked his Torlosian features. He paused in the shelter of the tree line to study the rolling hills and bide his time. As he had expected, there was no one around. With a barely perceptible nod and a set jaw, he slipped from hiding.

He padded to the porch, setting his feet down carefully to minimize the creaking of the untended timbers. Paint hung in long streaks where it had peeled away from the rotting wood. As expected, the door was locked. His hand glided down along his pants leg to the cleverly folded tool thrust down inside his boot. Moments later, the way into the house stood open. The cloaked Torlosian melted into the home’s interior and latched the door behind him.

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I won’t sit here and try to tell you that the third passage is perfect. But of the three, it does strike the best balance of description and action. I put in enough detail that you can picture the landscape around the man as he approaches the old house, then I moved right into the action sequence of the man breaking in.

Putting in the right number of descriptive words isn’t the only balance to maintain. Another issue you face is when to interrupt a scene to insert more descriptive words. We’ll look at that issue in the next entry.

–Scott