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Author of the Night Angel trilogy and The Black Prism

New Writing Advice

(new for April 2015)

I was wondering if you could give me some advice as to how you make the world come alive. The little sequences between important events that are supposed to make the world come alive (walking down the street and looking at the scenery or people walking by, for instance) don’t feel very organic. At all. What advice could you give to help make the little things have a larger impact? – Andrius

There’s really only one test for how much detail a scene should have: Is This Detail Pertinent? What that means in each scene can vary. For example, if a character is rushing to the other side of the city to find her kidnapped son, then you don’t need to describe every odor in the farmer’s market that day. It’s simply not pertinent to what the scene is accomplishing, it’s not pertinent to the character. Now perhaps the farmer’s market is incredibly crowded, and she can’t get through it. A description of the crowd as an obstacle to her, maybe some personification of how it seems like an “unyielding beast” or things in that vein. Those would be pertinent details.

On the other hand, if a character is lying in a field, dying after being victorious in battle, maybe a long description of the beauty of the clouds is pertinent, because it’s meaningful to the character and to the readers how this character is savoring what little life is left to him.

Now not every detail that you’re going to use in a novel is going to be that meaningful. I tend to be pretty sparse with descriptions in general, because I mostly find them boring. But you can be too sparse as well. I think Stephen King describes this as characters becoming floating heads talking in a fog. Scenes do need to take place in a place. And ideally, you can make that place matter to the scene. Having a fight with your husband is very different if you’re having it in your bedroom versus if you’re having it at your in-law’s house versus if you’re having it in the middle of his law office.

If you’re talking about other kind of details, like the details of what a character is thinking, sometimes in the first draft, you may need to write some extra sentences to try to get exactly the thing you’re looking for on the page. And that’s fine. In the editorial phase, you can ask yourself things like “Is this redundant? Have I already explained this? If I explained it twice, which description was better?”

All that said, some writers are simply going to have a more or less descriptive style. And that’s perfectly fine. Some readers prefer more, and some readers prefer less description. But readers will skim if the thing being described really doesn’t matter. And usually the metric for if it matters is: Does it matter to the characters?

Secondarily, if the description itself puts the readers in the correct mood for what you have planned next, then that is also sufficient justification. Just make sure you’re doing it right.