This month’s tip comes from Julia Wells, editor of The Things We Did for Love by Natasha Farrant.
The Remedy for Too Much Description
Julia’s advice reflects the position of most industry professionals: Use action and dialogue, not description, to “Show, Don’t Tell.” In an interview for The Guardian, Wells cautions, “While the use of description can allow the reader to picture a scene, too much description can make the story seem slow and boring. The reader will feel as if they are actually in the scene if they experience it through the characters’ eyes, feeling what the character feels.” Wells goes on to talk about ways to show that a character is scared using dialog, by showing her breathing, shaking, stuttering, running away.
But how does any of that help you set a scene for an exotic locale, an historical, a fantasy, or a futuristic romance?
In the book named above, Natasha Farrant uses deep point of view to show us both a melancholy character and the lost world she mourns. It’s 1944 in France and the war has going on for five years. Watching dismal rain hit her window, the heroine thinks:Once there had been fires and warm lights on winter afternoons, brioche straight from the baker’s oven dunked into bowls of chocolate.
You can practically taste the hunger for that brioche. And feel the wistful sadness of the narrator. In that one sentence you have both characterization and a picture of the world. And because it’s a picture of a world that no longer exists, you know the present is cold and there is no brioche.
The heroine’s best friend, stuffing stockings down her bra and admiring her reflection, misses different things.“You know what the problem is, don’t you? Five years of war has made us dull. Nothing ever happens.” “The Duponts came last year.” Arianne did not say what she wanted to say, that her father being taken prisoner had not been nothing. “There are piano recitals.” “Piano recitals!” cried Solange. “Paul says the oldest daughter can skin a rabbit almost as fast as he can.”
So with this dialogue you know the town’s citizens have now been reduced to eating wild game. And a piano recital now passes for exciting entertainment… for some, but not for would-be-flirt Solange.
This is how you combine characterization and dialogue to build a setting. Yes, the details of the environment are subtle, creeping up on your readers almost without them realizing. And sometimes you just have to describe that spaceship or warship, or that hideous purple sofa. But this way involves your readers and lets them see the world through the eyes of characters who have feelings about that world. It’s a faster read and lets you get on with the plot without tons of narrative. Lots better, don’t you think?