Saturday, 25 April 2015
I’ve written about this subject before, back in 2011, but it still seems to endlessly confuse writers on what is deemed the right amount of description in a novel, particularly when the writer needs to get a lot of information across to the reader without destroying the fabric of the story or leaving the reader deflated with the lack of detail.
But getting the balance right is quite a challenge.
There is a multitude of advice available where description is concerned. Some advise writers to keep things minimal, while others agree that description is a necessity and writers shouldn’t compromise pertinent details, especially as it plays an important role in embellishing the story.
There are advantages of using more description, but that doesn’t negate the use of brevity when it’s needed.
I know I’ve mentioned this before in other articles, but the holy trinity of description, narrative and dialogue falls into what is known as the Goldilocks zone – not too much, not too little, but just about right. And that’s what writers should aim for with description. It’s about finding a balance.
It has to be said that more description is sometimes preferred and at other times less description is better. There is no or wrong. It depends entirely on the scene and all its elements.
There are a lot of options available to the writer to help him or her get the balance right.
When more description is required
It’s entirely acceptable to have lengthy descriptive scenes every now and then. Certain scenes demand it because description helps the writer convey different sensations – mood, tension, atmosphere, emotion and pace. For instance, a foreboding and pensive scene in a darkened house can’t exist on a minimal description, simply because it gives absolutely nothing to the reader. They won’t be able to engage with it or visualise it.
More description is needed in these types of scenes so that the writer can show the sense of foreboding and tension and the primal fears, to make the reader almost reach in and feel the atmosphere. In other words, longer descriptions serve an important function.
At other times, different ‘action’ scenes require more descriptions in order to allow the reader to imagine they’re part of the story.
Description provides pertinent information that would otherwise be overlooked, things like background detail and setting.
More description is also necessary when the writer needs to elaborate on certain scenes to help the reader become part of the story, to become involved on a personal level, to become absorbed by beautiful the brush strokes and visual imagery.
When it becomes a negative
Too much description can become a problem if left unchecked, since it’s so easy for writers to get carried away while writing. It can be distracting for a reader when confronted with large swathes of description that doesn’t really do anything for the story.
When less description is required
Plenty of writers erroneously believe that description should be brief and concise, no matter what. Brevity is the new buzzword. But brevity only works when description demands it, otherwise the resulting novel will simply not be worth reading because it will provide too much ‘telling’ and will ‘show’ very little.
Brief description tends to quicken the pace, so it’s very useful for strong action scenes. The writing uses shorter, staccato words to keep it taut and fast.
Brief description is also perfect for breaking up long lines of dialogue. Having the character break from speaking, followed by a brief description of something – it could be an emotion, something they notice or an action of some sort -
When it becomes a negative
Too little description at the right moment will kill the overall effect you want to achieve because you are not allowing the reader to become involved, you are not creating enough in the scene to make it interesting, and certainly a lack of description won’t move the story forward.
The wrong kinds of description
Amplification, circumlocution, purple prose...these are the kinds of description that writers should look out for. Amplification means the writer embellishes the sentence by adding more information in the hope to increase its comprehension. Sometimes that works, but often it just creates more description than is necessary. Circumlocution means the writer creates long and overly complex sentences in order to convey a meaning that could have otherwise been conveyed through a shorter, simpler sentence structures. And everyone knows what purple prose is – description that is just too over the top and flowery and jammed with adjectives.
Another one is the info dump, where too much mind-numbing information is described that serves no purpose for the story and doesn’t move it forward in any way.
Next week we’ll look at ways to best blend description, choose what to describe and when and how to make the most of description.
Next week: Too Much v. Too Little Description Part 2
Saturday, 11 April 2015
By far, this subject has proved to be the most popular among writers, so due to popular demand, it’s time to revisit this very relevant subject, which I first wrote about in 2012.
Firstly, I’m going to repeat a snippet of advice I dispensed in the first article and that is novel lengths are dictated by the story itself, not the writer or the editor or a specific written formula. Secondly, writers don’t have to fit their word count into generic set amounts. The story will dictate how long the novel will be.
But plenty of writers still fret about the length of their chapters, let alone the length of the novel. There is a worry that they might be too long or not long enough, and that perfect ‘Goldilocks’ length just seems hard to pin down, but in truth, it’s not hard at all.
It’s all down to knowing when to stop at a relevant juncture to allow the narrative to breathe and to prepare the reader for the next chapter. The easiest thing to do is to just keep going with story, to get carried away and before you know it your chapter has turned into a mammoth 7,000 words without so much as a breath.
The art of getting chapter lengths right is to write enough to keep the reader entertained, interested, invested and hooked, without the danger of them falling asleep with boredom if the chapter drags on and on. Of course, sometimes chapters can run long because the story arc demands it. But conversely, try not to make chapters too short that the reader loses interest or feels as though the narrative ‘stutters’ and makes them feel short-changed.
Vary Chapter Lengths
Variation is key to getting it right. Some chapters will be short, one or two will be long, and the rest should average out the same length. That’s why variation works so well. But the one thing they should all do is impart information, move the story along and to keep the reader enthralled.
The one thing that chapters should always do is end with a teaser in order to make the reader continue reading. Think of old black and white serials – they always ended on a cliff hanger, which meant the audience were on the edge of their seats desperate to know what happened next. Treat your chapters the same. The reader has to know what happens next, so write the end of the chapter in a way that invites them to carry on reading.
Keep chapter lengths varied - think Goldilocks...not too long, not too short, but just about right.
But what about the novel itself? Are there set novel lengths for different genres?
In truth, they are not largely different from each other. For example, science fiction novels, on the whole, don’t run as long as thriller or some crime novels. But that does not mean to say that you have to keep the word count at a rigid 80,000 words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the story is good, then there is nothing wrong with a 90,000 + word science fiction novel.
It’s worth noting that publishers and agents don't reject because of word counts, they reject work because it doesn’t fit their genre, the work is too badly written or it just doesn’t work for various reasons.
If you contrast average words counts with something like children and young adult’s fiction, the word counts can vary between 20,000 words to 45,000. Fantasy/saga novels, on the other hand, tend to be a big read – think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
The romance genre tends to run at 70,000 words to 90,000 words (and sometimes fewer words, depending upon the publishing house). It would have to be a very captivating romance story to run beyond 100,000 words.
Average novel counts by the most common genres:-
Children’s and YA: Between 20,000 and 45,000
Fantasy/Saga: Between 80,000 and 110,000
Suspense/Thriller: Between 80,000 and 100,000
Crime/Detective or Noir: Between 80,000 and 90,000
Romance: Between 70,000 and 90,000
Erotica: Between 70,000 and 90,000
Historical: Between 80,000 and 110,000
Literary: Between 80,000 and 90,000
Science Fiction: 80,000 and 90,000
Horror: Between 80,000 and 90,000
Note that these are simple guidelines only. They are not set in stone! They represent averages.
The simple truth is that you should aim for an average word count that falls between 80,000 and 95,000 words because if it spills over 110,000 words and isn’t brilliantly written, the reader may well give up reading and find something better to do. This can happen because writers have a habit of writing far too much of the story and don’t actually know A) when to stop or B) how to edit effectively.
Seasoned writers often write more than is required – deliberately – because they know that during the editing process they will cut upwards of 15% - 25%. It’s very normal for the length of a novel to fluctuate over the entire writing and editing process, which means a book can complete at 85,000 words, swell to 95,000 words after the first few rewrites, then slim down to 90,000 words before finally ending up at 100,000 words. This is quite normal.
The drawback with many writers is that they don’t always know what to edit out and what to leave in, which means they make the fatal mistake of leaving everything in. And that’s why some novels ridiculously inflated with words.
The thing to remember is that novel lengths are not an exact science. When you plan your novel, set yourself an average word count to help guide you. Don’t worry if you go over your goal of, say, 90,000 words and end up with 100,000 words. Sometimes we just need a little bit more than we anticipated in order to edit well and tell the story effectively.
As long as the novel moves the story along, starts in the right place, has a great middle and ends at the right moment, then the finishing word count shouldn’t cause concern. Writers just have to use common sense.
So, where chapter lengths are concerned, remember the following:
- Be concise. Don’t let it drag on.
- Move the story along
- End with by a tease or a statement that makes the reader want to find out more.
- Vary lengths to keep things interesting.
- Set yourself a word target as a guide.
- Always write a little more than the target word count to help you with editing – this helps to get rid of the waffle, info dumps, unnecessary scenes and unimportant narrative.
- Try to stick to guidelines.
- Remember the Goldilocks rule – not too short, not too long, but just about right.
One final note on this subject – tastes, trends and conventions change from time to time. What is trendy now may change in a few years, so read other novels that are similar to yours, check out their length and look at different publishing houses and their guidelines on various genres.
But most of all...don’t worry so much over your chapter and novel lengths!
Next week: Context – what does it do?
Saturday, 4 April 2015
Continuing with the fundamentals of novel writing – those basics of any novel – we’ll take a look at a few more essentials that make up the list for authors to consider before embarking on writing a full length novel.
Part 1 looked at things like Planning, length, plot, POV, characterisation, conflict and structure, so now it’s the turn of The Beginning, Ending, Dialogue, Exposition and Balance.
The beginning/The Hook – the opening must have a good hook in order to draw the reader into the novel. If you don’t, the reader may not bother to read your story.
The hook works like a fishing hook. You dangle it in front of the reader in order to lure them. The best novels do this with great opening lines and once hooked, the beginning gets right into the action. Don’t spend three pages explaining everything to the reader before anything interesting happens. Let that interesting thing happen right at the beginning, in the first paragraph. A life changing event, significant action or, literally, you open it with a bang – whichever way you do it, grab your reader’s attention from the start and don’t let go.
Ending/resolution – The ending is just as important as the beginning. It must tie up loose ends, resolve all sub plots and story strands and it must be a satisfactory conclusion for the reader. If not, then the whole story will fall flat.
You may not always have the exact details of the ending in mind when you start your novel, and that is quite common, but at least have some idea; otherwise you could fall into the trap of creating a deus ex machina (a contrived set of coincidences that help to force the conclusion of the story).
The ending should form organically from the story. Never force it.
Dialogue basics – Too many self-published novels contain so much woefully written and badly structured dialogue that it is fundamentally clear that the writer hasn’t even learned the craft of fiction writing. Many writers don’t know a thing about dialogue tags, punctuation placement or order of dialogue to action, so it’s vital you understand the basics.
The best way to understand how dialogue structures work is read other well known, successful novels. You will see how it’s laid out, how to introduce characters when speaking, how to break up dialogue with brief description and how to punctuate correctly.
Exposition – lack of exposition, too much exposition and indirect exposition. We’re talking description. Most new writers are under the misguided impression that novels don’t need that much description – it takes up too much room and it’s boring to read.
If that’s the case, what is the point of reading a book? Without description, how does a writer expect the reader to understand what’s going on, how can they empathise with the main character, how can they immerse themselves in the story?
Like it or loathe it, a good book needs plenty of description in the right places. In other words, description is vital for those key scenes to help build a picture for the reader. For example, imagine a painting with no colour, nothing in the background, nothing in the foreground, no textures, no perspective and no shape, other than a drawn stick man. This kind of picture lacks imagination, it consists of hardly anything. It tells the observer absolutely nothing. And that’s how a book without description appears. Who would want to read something that has no substance?
Description in the right places gives the reader colour, background, foreground, textures, perspective and shape. It allows the reader to imagine themselves within that scene; it draws them in and lets them be a part of it. It’s the staple of any good book.
Indirect exposition is known as ‘show, don’t tell’. This is where action scenes, important scenes or atmospheric scenes help with tension, atmosphere and pace. This type of exposition allows the reader to share those moments.
On other occasions, the exposition can be minimal, just to allow the story to flow. This is the ‘telling’ part, the unimportant stuff that writers don’t have to show the reader and it should be brief and to the point. Writers often make the mistake of explaining far too much, when it’s not actually necessary. This is known as an ‘info dump’.
So, if the scene is important, then it demands the right depth of description to show atmosphere, tension, emotion or conflict. Other, less important scenes will require brief descriptions here and there, just to give some colour and layers to bolster the narrative. Peripheral, transitional and low key scenes need nothing more than very brief exposition = the writer is ‘telling’.
It’s all about getting the balance right. And talking of balance...
Balance – in novel writing that means finding the right balance of everything, but most importantly it’s about the balance of dialogue, description and narrative. Get that right and the reader will enjoy the novel because it has the right amount of dialogue, the right amount of description and the right amount of narrative.
Get the balance wrong and the reader may not enjoy the book so much because the other elements are lacking or missing or there is too much of one or more of them, but finding that balance becomes easier the more you write and understand your own strengths and limitations.
Finally, learn the conventions of fiction writing and respect them. Until you become an award winning, best-selling author with millions in the bank, you should stick to guidelines; otherwise you’ll get nowhere fast. When you become successful and famous, then you can break as many rules as you want, so until then, keep to the tried and tested formula if you want success.
The best way to study all these is to read plenty of well-written books by established authors. It’s the best way to learn.
Next week: More on Novel Lengths