Describing and Thinking Too Much

On January 28, 2010, Wendy the Bard wrote, What about too much description and thought?  Any words on that?

In writing this blog I’ve often thought of the old song “Dem Dry Bones.”  I’m making up the bones to fit writers, but it goes something like, Your finger bones connected to your hand bones, your hand bones connected to your wrist bones, and so on, with a strong beat.  In writing, everything is connected to everything else.  So description and thoughts are connected to point of view (POV) and to voice and to all the other elements that make up a story.

If you’re writing in first-person POV or in a third-person POV that’s not omniscient (all knowing), only the main character’s thoughts can be reported and only what she sees, hears, smells, touches can be described.  Suppose she’s a landscape painter and sees herself as a colorist, she’s going to be alert to the hues wherever she goes.  You will certainly want to emphasize the colors in each setting she enters.  She may be emotionally tuned to colors too, so she might be distressed in certain environments.  She might even like or dislike someone according to the color scheme in his house or his clothes.  She may be too fascinated by the blue tones in the ocher mud caked on the green linoleum kitchen floor to conclude that the floor is dirty.

But she may not be sensitive to sounds.  She may not hear the ticking clock or the teakettle hissing as it approaches a boil.  Despite the hiss, she may jump when the whistle starts.  If there is something auditory you need the reader to know about, you may have to make it deafening, or you may need to have another character mention it.

So, thinking about who is telling the story will help limit your descriptions to only what this character would notice.

However, if your main character is, for example, a detective who notices everything, the task is harder.  He sees the mud on the floor and the footprints tracked through it and the teakettle and the absence of tea in the cupboard and all kinds of things as well, the pack of matches under one leg of the kitchen table to steady it, the frog refrigerator magnets, the wildlife calendar turned to the wrong month.  Some of these observations may be important to the mystery and others may not.  You will probably want to mix the irrelevant in with the relevant to mislead the poor reader, but you still won’t want to go on too long.

How to stop?  Your detective can be interrupted.  Someone can ask him a question or enter the room.  His cell phone can ring.  Even his thoughts can change tracks.  Suppose your detective is falling in love.  The orange tablecloth can be the same color as his girlfriend’s scarf, and his thoughts can go briefly to her.  If he’s thinking too much already, you may not want to opt for this, though.

People think differently, too.  Some think in grammatically correct paragraphs, some in phrases, some in a word or two, some in images.  When a character has a problem it may cycle endlessly through his mind.  An argument can do this too, as he thinks of all the cutting remarks he could have made.  Or if he was told something that stunned him, just a few words may echo over and over.

If your character is a loquacious thinker you can bring in the same devices to stop the thinking as you used to cut off the description.  When I’m caught on a thought treadmill in real life, I often turn on talk radio to shut myself up.  Your character can do the same, or she can watch TV or listen to music, whatever will distract her.

You can switch to telling as well, as in, I stayed up half the night going over Dylan’s words.  Then the next morning comes and the story moves on to other things.  Or, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking about the secret.  Maxie came by.  They talked, but the thinking wouldn’t go away, like the crawl under the television news.  By informing the reader that thinking is taking place, you don’t have to reveal every thought.

If you’re telling the story from an omniscient third-person POV – by a narrator who’s outside the story – the narrator’s voice can help limit description.  A no-nonsense voice will not let you spend many words on the Venetian blinds in the kitchen.  It will hurry to the boy peeking through the slats to see if the class bully is waiting outside the house.

A more lyrical voice may linger, which is fine, as long as you keep the reader in mind.  You can spend a whole page on a lovely picnic scene if the reader knows that an approaching airplane is having engine trouble and may crash land there.  In fact, in such a situation, more may be better.  Show the reader the budding dogwood trees, the girl with the five-week-old puppies she hopes to find homes for, the artist sketching the family of picnickers, and the old man sleeping with the newspaper over his face.  You can even zoom in close enough to reveal the newspaper headline about improved air travel safety.

Having said all this, you may still write too much description and too many thoughts.  I recommend not worrying about this in your first draft and maybe not even in your second, not until your story is solid.  Before then you can’t be sure what you need and what you don’t.

When you’re revising, try cutting sentences and paragraphs of description and thoughts – but before you cut, save the version and continue in a new version so you don’t lose what you had before.  If you’re working longhand, cross out in pencil.  See how the slimmer version reads.  Is it better?  Or do you and the reader need at least some of what you took out?

To help guide you in your cutting, ask yourself if the part you’re thinking of cutting contributes to character, setting, mood, plot.  Even if it does, question whether those elements are already established enough without these passages.

This is my prejudice:  Don’t cut humor unless it is out of place or works against your scene.  Few readers mind extra sentences that make them laugh.

Remember, you don’t need a machete to cut.  A nail scissors works fine too.  You can cut a third of a story or even of a book with a snip here and a snip there.

F and Arya, originally I thought I would get to your questions about too little dialogue, but I failed, so next week I will.

Here are prompts:  Describe a room in your house and give the accompanying thoughts from the point of view of one or more of these:
•    a burglar who has broken in at 2:00 am;
•    a teenager who’s come along with her parents on a house-hunt;
•    the family dog or cat;
•    a grandmother who’s just moved in with her daughter’s family;
•    an interior decorator who’s been invited to redo the room.

Restrict yourself to no more than two pages for each.  Then revise and see what you can do very well without.  Have fun and save what you write!

  1. You mentioned not cutting humor if it works for the story, even if it isn't necessary, which reminded me: How do you suggest someone practice writing humor?

    Back when I was in college, one of my classes required me to write a few humor pieces and my best work would only get listeners to smirk, never laugh like they did for other writers (we read our work aloud in class). Stuff that I think sounds funny rarely gets the guffaw I hope for, but it seems to come naturally for others.

    While I'll never be a comedian, surely injected humor is a skill I can learn if I practice hard enough?

    In case it matters: In daily interactions, I have a rather dry, sarcastic humor. When reading, I like wit and a bit of slapstick (like you write). And in movies, I love slapstick.

  2. Thanks for the advice, Mrs. Levine. As always, your entries are very helpful. 🙂

    I have a question totally unrelated to this post. What happens when you love a story idea or character too much, so much so that you can't bear writing about them because you are afraid you might mess it up? Add the itching feeling that you have to write it, to get it down, but you can't when you touch pencil to paper or rest your fingers on the computer keys. How do you make yourself just write if you feel you've had the best story idea in your life and you're afraid you will mess it up?

  3. Hm, that's a helpful post, though I'll have to get back and read it more thoroughly later. Yes, I just skimmed through it! *the shame*
    Anyway…Thanks. 🙂 You're an awesome author, and I really should get round to reading Ever, which I want to, but it isn't available here. 🙁

  4. Thank you – that post is going to help me a lot in my revisions. I naturally seem to put in a ton of description because I'm also an artist, and I design a lot of things before writing about them. I want the reader to be able to visualize the scene as well as I do, which is a problem because my setting is a different world.

    That brings me to a question: Do you have any advice for writing about fantasy worlds (environment, culture, etc.) without creating a massive "information dump"?

  5. This is for Horsey At Heart: I may have had the feeling you're talking about. Sometimes my ideas are hard to describe on paper because they're, well, hard to describe! It seems like they're more of a feeling then a bunch of words, and I can't write about the ideas without the writing taking all the zest out of them. But don't feel that you're going to mess them up, just write it down, and if it doesn't feel right, change it. Hope that helps!
    And Thanks for the post, Mrs. Levine. I have this problem too, someimes.

  6. April–There's a chapter in WRITING MAGIC about writing humor, and I wrote a post about it too on 6/23/09. You might also try reading some funny writers and observing how they go about it. Joan Bauer leaps to mind.
    Horsey at Heart–Well, I hope you do write it! We all mess up our ideas. They're perfect in our minds and imperfect on paper. But once we start writing we have something to work with.
    Silver the Wanderer–I think I posted about this, but I can't find the post, so I've added your question to my list.

  7. Heh, back from re-reading. It really is a valuable post, and I just realized when I was reading the bit about cutting out description when editing, how hard it must be! To cut out those hard-written words! And probably since it's my first novel, I can't wait for editing! But I have to finish it first. Anyway, I really like the advice you give. Also, 'Dem Dry Bones'…I've been waiting to hear the title of this song since forever! Or, since I last heard it on a cartoon show…THANK YOU. :)[My first comment reads like that of a hyperactive chipmunk :(]

  8. Thanks, I'll re-read the post on 6/3/09. I'm only part way through Writing Magic, so I guess I haven't gotten to that chapter yet. I'll keep reading! (I received that book and Ever as a surprise gift recently.)

  9. I'm writing a book that is from the two main charaters point's of view. One chapter is from the heroines and the other is from the hero. My problem is when even I have to write the hero point of view I get stuck. I can finish a chapter a day if I'm writing about the heroine.
    Why do I get so stuck with my hero?

    Thank you again for your blog.

  10. Omega–Here's something you might try: Limit the hero's chapters to no more than one or two sentences. Do this for at least five heroine chapters and see if you want to go back and fill in the ones that belong to the hero or if you can do without them and tell the story only from a single point of view.

  11. This post helps so much thank you!
    My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about. I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn't happen in one event. It happened over many years. I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it. I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but its hard to get out all the information with out making it seems like two books in one. Any suggestions?

  12. Hi Gail

    Have you ever thought of writing a book that is based on Sleeping Beauty? I think that would be a cute story to re-mix.
    I think it is fun to take an original story and twist it up with "what ifs"
    ex: Little Mermaid- what if the sea witch won?


  13. Me again
    Today in art class I drew a portrait of you.
    If I do say so myself, I did a fantastic job.
    The picture really looks like you.
    Just something i wanted to let you know.


  14. Jill–Spanning years… I'm adding the question to my list, but I will be a while getting to it.
    Lizzy–I'm honored you drew me! One of my PRINCESS TALES is a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty." My version is called PRINCESS SOMORA AND THE LONG SLEEP. You might try reading the Hans Christian Anderson original "Little Mermaid," which, I think, is different from the version you know.

  15. I just wanted to say this was vary helpful and I love this prompt:)
    I had the burglar describe my room and he said it was so messy that no one would notes if he threw stuff around (which is probably right) haha.

  16. Mrs.Levine- I loved this post. You must be magical,because you keep answering my unposted questions in your entries. It's just that little nagging in the back of my head that I never thought to post and Viola! you answer a other writer's question identical to mine. Maybe It's not so weird after all and I'm just facing challenges everyday writers have. Well,magical or not thanks again for your always helpful posts.:)

  17. Ooops I forgot that you wrote "Princess Somora and the long sleep"
    I never got a chance to read it because my library doesn't have it.
    But i will look in a different library.
    thank you

  18. I love those tales! Especially the Princess and the Pea retelling! *SPOILERS*
    I loved the bit where the prince hurts his knee-cap proposing.'Lorelei' became my friend's and my favourite name after that!
    And in 'Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep' when the Prince sees the bird poop on her face – a seriously true reaction. One never considers that, lol.
    I really like those twisted tales. 🙂

  19. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    A few days ago, when I started on a new story, I came across a problem I'd never heard of before: I didn't like my main character! It wasn't that she was mean or rude or dislikeable, I just had a huge problem with her. Can you give me a way this won't happen in the future?

  20. I am working on rewriting and I recently was glad of your advice to save everything you write! I cut a mini-scene because I thought it wasn't important enough to the plot, then much later I found that it was important for character development to make something later believable. I was so glad I kept it!

    Thanks for all your good advice. 🙂

  21. re: Mary, unlikable character

    Maybe you don't like the things your character is doing, but can you figure out why she is acting the way she is? Perhaps if you understand her you might find a little part of her to like.

  22. This is exactly what I need! I tend to descibe a lot, and go on for a few pages until I bore myself, and find that during the process my story itself has lost its appeal for me to start over. Those prompts were fun, and challenging! I had a lot of fun writing the scene with a burglar. Thanks for sharing so much with us!=)
    You've always been my favourite author, and I'd like to say that you have many fans here in Australia.=D

  23. Mary–Sounds like you've written a strong character, which is good. I can't guarantee that you'll never dislike one of your main characters again, but you might try this: Think of someone, a real person, you do like. Give a few of this person's best qualities to your main character and she may grow on you.
    Mya–How nice to hear from you in Australia! I'm so glad you enjoy my books!

  24. Wow – I'm glad I found your blog (thanks, Inkygirl). As a developing writer, I can learn a lot from your thoughts. I especially liked your advice about editing. I'll be checking back frequently.

  25. Hi Ms. Levine, I'm so excited I found your blog! I'm an undergraduate sophmore student at the University of Texas in Dallas and I'm working on revising my YA fantasy. Your book Ella Enchanted was one of my major inspirations to become an author when I was in elementary school.

    Your blog holds great advice for any writer. I can't wait to go through and read all the posts.

  26. Hello Mrs. Levine,

    I love all your books. I am reading the book Writing Magic. I have read most all your books . You inspire me. That is why I want to be a writer. Will you please come to my blog? And will you tell me your email? I will send you a book I wrote and maybe you can give me some suggestions. I will love to hear back from you. My blog is

    Love Emily, Age 9

  27. Emily–I visited your blog, love your photographs and your outfits. Now I'm going to disappoint you. I keep my email address a deep secret known only to friends and people I work with. The best way to write to me is on the blog. And the only writing that I critique is of the students who've been in my workshop near where I live. I just don't have time for more. Sorry!
    Liz H. Allen–I don't see many options. You might have that character reveal the thought or experience in dialogue or in a letter, or move the thought or experience to your main character, or (lot of work, lot of new issues), you can change point of view. Maybe somebody reading the blog will have more suggestions.

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