Exhausted, Patrick climbed into the back of his father’s car. The trip from Newark had been cramped and noisy, he looked forward to the peace and quiet of the long drive home. Six hours later they arrived. The end.
I know. That was terrible, wasn’t it? I have written a few short stories, some short reads of about 10k words, and the beginning of my series – about 65K words. When it comes to knowing what to describe the real question has always been “How much is enough?”
Answer this honestly, have you read a book that sounded like this: “Sweat began to form on his pale brow, the anticipation of stepping back in front of the same self-absorbed, narcissistic students that callously drove him to the breaking point caused his heart to crawl painfully into his throat as he turned the aged brass doorknob slightly to the right until its deafening click resounded throughout the classroom all but guaranteeing their dull, hateful eyes would be on him as he entered.”
Yeah, me too. I hate books like that. I love that the description puts you right into the character’s frame of mind, but it almost sounds like the author was given a 500 word essay and chose to do it in one sentence. Conversely, we would do the character a huge disservice if we simply said, “He nervously opened the door.”
So How Much Is Enough?
The easiest answer I can give is “Never let your descriptions get in the way of your story, but never let your lack of description prevent the telling of your story.” You must find a balance that helps the reader get lost in the sensations of your characters. For example, walking into a classroom, what needs to be described immediately? The smell of dry erase markers? The light shining through the windows at an uncomfortable angle? The hushed breathing of the students? The racing pulse of the teacher? Let the reader feel the scene, but only if it’s important. Let me give you two examples.
Example One: Teacher walking into her new classroom for the first time. “She opened the door and was greeted by an empty classroom. Her empty classroom. The desks were all pushed against the wall. The dry erase board was dirty, still marked from the end of last school year. Any other teacher would balk at a room in this condition, but she only saw opportunity. She twirled like a young girl, giddy at the raw euphoria she could barely contain. ‘Time to get to work,’ she said as she rolled up her sleeves.”
Example Two: Teacher walking through the teacher’s lounge on his way to his private locker. “He opened the door to the teacher’s lounge and swiftly began weaving between the haphazard chair placement as he made his way to his locker, ignoring the smell of the freshly-brewed coffee.”
In the first example, we want more description and emotion because it is important to the character. But, in the second, we don’t need to talk about the newspapers left on the tables, or the old coffee cups in the sink. It’s enough to show that he passed through it because it wasn’t important to the character at the time.
I have been accused of not giving enough description to my stories and I am guilty as charged. I am working on it, here and there. Just as you should be.
So, when you tell your story, make certain that your story shines through. Use your descriptions as tools to get your story where it should be. And, as always, Scribe On!