Editing Descriptions to Move Your Story Forward
Is your pacing too slow? Need to pull out your writer tools to increase story pacing? This is Part II of my “editing description to move the story forward” article. Part I focused specifically on scene imagery. This article focuses on a broader range of descriptions.
Break the “Rule of 3” (Sometimes)
In writing, one of the important tools we almost instinctually use is the “rule of three.” People are used to getting information in threes. You have your Three Bears, Three Musketeers, and Three Stooges. On your mark, get set, go!
“The cat was fluffy beyond description, with green eyes, and a wicked snarl.”
Three things: fluffy, green eyes, and snarl.
But sometimes to keep the pacing going, consider cutting it back to one descriptor. How do you know if your character description could use a trim. Here’s a piece of advice I keep in the back of my mind that works especially well for middle grade and young adult novels—ask yourself two questions:
1) Will this character appear in more than one scene?
2) How much impact do they have on the plot?
Here’s why these questions matter. Introducing a new character slows story pacing simply because the reader has to process that new character in their brain. The reader naturally wants to start figuring out the character’s importance, if they’re “a trustworthy character,” and so on. If you do three, beautifully written descriptions for a character (and give them a name), it signals to the reader that this character is important. The reader will put in effort to remember them so they’ll have that ah-ha moment the author is driving toward in the story (because they trust you, the author). So if it’s a passing character, give your reader a break, keep the pacing going, and give the character a single descriptor.
For example: if your character notices a cat that will only be in a scene or two and doesn’t have a direct impact on the plot, you might say, “The cat was fluffy beyond description,” and leave it at that. Then when you later say, “the fluffy cat,” or if there were white cat hairs on a couch, we know exactly what you’re referring to.
Increasing the Pain Increases Tension
Usually in storytelling, it’s wise to cut down the words. For picture books, many publishing houses are looking for 500-word stories. While fantasy novels are often 100,000 words, paragraphs of purple prose will slow the pacing. In contrast, when sentences are short, pacing naturally speeds up.
Having warned you about purple prose, sometimes it’s a good idea to actually lengthen the description. One way to build tension using longer descriptions is when you’re recounting powerful emotions/feelings such as: hatred, fear, pain, love, or joy.
This is a continuation of my chapter edit from my author friend, Raye Wagner. She reviewed my introductory chapters and gave me valuable feedback and lessons I’m passing on to you. Here you can see that I wrote “I tensed.” This quickened the pacing, as I wanted, but it’s telling rather than showing. Raye expanded internal emotion out, adding a lengthy sentence.
I want to draw your attention to: “tension crawled,” “driving,” “spike,” and “eye.” These are strong pain descriptors. It knocks the reader over the head and tells them this protagonist is about to devolve into a splitting migraine.
Further down, you can see she added a completely new sentence. “My headache grew roots and twisted my stomach.”
This vivid description builds on the earlier line, letting you know the headache is progressing. This signals “Things are getting worse. You, reader, should feel more tension, too.”
In both cases, she added words to the description, which is generally frowned upon when you’re wanting to keep the pacing brisk. But this visceral pain is so relatable and painful, it was a brilliant suggestion.
Layering Description and Symbolism
Symbolism is a particularly fun layer to add into a novel using description. But as I discussed in the last article, timing is everything. Here’s an example of symbolism that didn’t work and why.
“I stared at the puffy blue daisies that grew next to the house…”
These descriptive sentences focus on puffy blue daisies, which is probably my biggest nod to the protagonist’s social class in the story (the social classes are represented by flowers). There are two problems with the symbolism in this paragraph.
The first problem was that this information came when the tension was supposed to be increasing. The protagonist was at the point of overwhelm where she’d just check out, so it was an odd place in the story for her to stop and consider the flowers. Secondly, the reader had not been introduced to how the social classes are represented by flowers. The reader wouldn’t realize they need to take special note on this particular flower.
My critique readers were thinking, “This character is kinda odd. Why is she stopping to notice the flowers when she thinks the plague might be descending on their town?”
For fans who might read my novels multiple times I include layers in my story for that sub-set of readers. However, I admitted the timing was wrong. Cautiously consider slipping under-the-radar symbolism into a paragraph when you’re building up the tension in a scene. If I’d wanted to use this symbolism, I’d have needed to come up with much stronger language, and cross my fingers that my readers weren’t reading too fast to notice the subtle nod. (Readers tend to read faster during fast-paced portions of the story.) I ended up cutting the lines, aka: killing my darlings!
Much later in the story, after the flower classes are defined for the reader, I included flowers whenever I wanted (all the way through the series) to immediately signal all sorts of things to the reader. For example, when the protagonist comes to a wall thick with climbing roses, the reader knows this is a pinch point where she’s crossing over into a new social class, a new territory, and there’s no going back.
You’re the Boss
Like I said in my first article, you’re the boss of your story. This is your novel, so you make the final decisions on what stays and what goes. Even though the examples I used are all fantastic, they didn’t all make the final cut. You know the overall story you want to share with the world. Take the editorial notes you receive and apply them as needed. I did it and you can to!
Kristin J. Dawson lives on the edge of a forest in the Pacific Northwest. She’s the author of THE LILAC PLAGUE, the HowDoesShe.com Literary Contributor, and a Deep Magic E-zine Board Member.