It’s time to get back to business with a craft-related post about writing description. I’ve been reading some manuscripts where the writers lapse into what I always call “play-by-play narration.” It’s the narrative equivalent of a chronological grocery list of events:
First we did this. Then we did that. He did this, and then he did that. After that, we did this. And then, that. A little bit later, we went and did such and such.
Plot is More Than Transcription
When you’re writing descriptions, it’s not just your job to transcribe what you imagine happens in a character’s day and think that you have yourself a plot. That’s not how it works. A large part of narration and storytelling is acting as a curator of the story. You’re supposed to maximize what’s important and minimize what’s not and keep directing your reader’s attention from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. When you’re filling up your pages with play-by-play narration, you’re describing actions that aren’t essential to the plot:
Anna went into the kitchen. She opened up the refrigerator and got out some mayonnaise, some mustard, and a head of lettuce from the crisper. The tomatoes and white bread were already on the counter. She got out two slices of bread and put them on a dinner plate, then spread one slice with the mayonnaise, the other with the mustard. Halfway through making her sandwich, she realized she’s forgotten the cheese and sliced deli meat in the fridge. Huffing to herself and blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she turned on a heel and headed back to get the rest of her fixins.
Writing Description: Compress and Move On
Or, you know, you could just say, “Anna made a sandwich” and then move on to writing description of the actions that actually matter to your plot. If it’s not important, it doesn’t need to be described in such painstaking detail. You only have about 300 pages to work with in the average novel. Don’t waste any time writing actions that aren’t important. If you need your characters to do something inconsequential, just sum it up in compressed narration, as I did in the first sentence of this paragraph.
Mirroring the Patterns of Our Lives
How do writers get stuck in this pattern of writing description that’s unnecessary? When you don’t know better, there’s a tendency towards describing actions that take the reader through a character’s day from dawn (probably why so many manuscripts start with a character waking up) to dusk. Why? Because that’s the pattern we’ve followed every day of our lives. Our days go this familiar route, so we send our characters through the same paces. This is a trap, and it makes for deadly dull reading. Break your characters out of play-by-play narration and get them moving on to the next plot point in your story. We don’t really care how Anna makes her sandwich. In fact, we don’t really need to read about her eating at all. The same goes with her bathroom routine, her shower, her picking out clothes, her driving to school, etc.
If you feel like you may be guilty of giving your readers the “play-by-play,” ask yourself about the actions you’re describing. Are they absolutely essential information for your reader? Do they factor into your plot? If not, maybe cut those passages and refocus on action that does move the story forward.
Are you striving for tighter, cleaner prose? When you invest in my manuscript editing services, I’ll point out instances of play-by-play narration that you can compress or trim from your work.