The Descriptive Balancing Act, Maria V.A. Johnson

Today’s guest post is by Maria V.A. Johnson, poet and editor. Maria was the editor on Carlie M.A. Cullen’s novel of paranormal love and adventure, ‘Heart Search: Lost’. Maria can be found blogging at

Maria is discussing the fine balancing act an author has when it comes to description.  For me, description is like hot-sauce. I love it, even when my lips are on fire, but I fear going over-board with it so when I am cooking, I don’t go there as often as I should.


The Descriptive Balancing Act

One of the hardest parts about writing is getting the level of detail correct. If you don’t describe something well enough, how are the readers supposed to connect to it? On the other hand, if you describe too much they will give up reading it completely.

It has always been a balancing act, between description and plot. One thing you need to remember though is that a story should always be either plot or character driven; it cannot be driven on description. The whole point of description is to paint the scene. Think of a painting of a woman. Is it interesting if she is standing in a white canvas, nothing around her? Not really. But is it interesting if she is standing in the middle of a huge crowd, or a forest, so you can barely see her? No. An author has to try to find the middle ground, just like with that painting.

So how do you use enough description to show the scene without overwhelming it?

Step One. Focus on telling the story. You can always go back and add more detail later if it’s needed.

Step Two. Try to be realistic. Don’t put in fancy words and elaborate phrasing just because it sounds good or you think it will stun the reader with your eloquence. Look at this phrase from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.

Now a) this sentence is way too long, which makes it difficult to follow from one end to the other, and b) you only need the first 8 words. Who doesn’t know what smog is? Who doesn’t know this author is referring to the car emissions? It is unnecessary detail. And the reference to 19th-century London? This would only be relevant if this were in a Historical Fiction novel or something similar, rather than being a throw-away comment on what real smog should be.  The author should just say “The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog,” and then move on with the story. We all know what it looks like, and those 8 words conjure enough of a picture for us to understand the scene.

Step Three. Think about your characters. How do they act, think, feel? When they do or say something can you see their personality, their motivation, their feeling behind it? You don’t need whole paragraphs to do this unless it is a scene that calls for it, e.g. when someone is crushed by grief and the emotions are overwhelming everything – including the story, sometimes all you need is a word or two. Look at this example from Heart Search: Lost by Carlie M. A. Cullen.

“I don’t know what to say,” he moaned, anguish still apparent in his tone.

The male protagonist has just accidentally hurt his partner. You can see with just a few words how much it has affected him and how he feels about it. This tells you a lot about his character, how caring and gentle he is, and how much he loves her.

Step Four. Before sending it off to an editor, give it a read through and ask yourself “Is this something I would like to read?” If the answer is no, then ask yourself why.

Four easy steps to follow towards a balanced story. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but even for the exceptions there is a rule.

The Rule. If you are going to break a rule, make sure you do it well enough that nobody cares!

Let’s look at two classic examples of this – C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien is known for his amazing scenes. Pick up The Lord of the Rings and you will find description on top of description. Even when they take up the entire page, it doesn’t feel too heavy. This is partly because of the length of the book, and partly because of the way he makes the scenes come to life. You don’t notice how long the descriptive passages are when you are lost within the world he has created.

On the south-eastern side the ground fell very steeply, as if the slopes of the hill were continued far down under the trees, like island-shores that really are the sides of a mountain rising out of deep waters.

Lewis is the exact opposite. Read The Chronicles of Narnia and you will see how little description he actually uses. The fact that this is a children’s book helps. A person’s imagination is most vivid as a child. He gives just enough detail to release the child to see the rest. He makes the reader the describer, letting them go where they want with only a little nudge. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe most things and people are described, but not until you are half-way through the final chapter do you learn anything about the four main characters.

And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them. And Peter became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior, and he was called King Peter the Magnificent. And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet … Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgement. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden-haired…


So now you know the steps to follow, you are half-way to having a decent novel which will engage your readers. Don’t forget that you should ALWAYS send it off to a professional editor – NEVER try to do it yourself!

Remember The Rule and happy writing!

1 Comment

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One response to “The Descriptive Balancing Act, Maria V.A. Johnson

  1. Excellent column with loads of fantastic advice. Thanks to you both!