How do I know which description details to keep in my book and which I should remove?
Description is an important part of any story, but often it is hard to decide when it is enough. Which details should you keep and which details should go? Consider these examples:
The white-capped waves crashed noisily against the enormous cliffs. She loved them, the tall, white, majestic cliffs that towered over the heaving sea. Her knee-high, sky blue Hunter boots sank deeply into the thick, overgrown green grass. Black mud caked the soles, thick globs clinging, making it hard to walk. She heard Jake calling loudly from the path. She moved closer to the large boulder, taking comfort in the solid presence and remaining out of sight. The wild wind blew her hair into her eyes. She wrapped her thick, chunky-knit jersey tighter around her. She pulled her arms up into the long roomy sleeves, keeping the belt snug around her waist. Jake called again, his gruff voice closer this time. His words disappeared on the wind, but his distress found her. It clutched her heart and made her weak lungs seize, her hacking cough told him where she was. Jake picked her up. She closed her eyes. He was angry. She knew she should have stayed inside. She knew it was stupid, but she had to see it again. For the last time. She concentrated on her breathing. In. Out, as he carried her up the hill.
White-capped waves crashed against the cliffs, the heaving sea as grey as the clouds above. Claire’s Hunter boots sank into the thick grass. Mud caked the soles, weighing down her steps.
She heard Jake calling from the path. She moved closer to the boulder, taking comfort in the solid presence and remaining out of sight. Just a little longer. The wind tugged her blonde hair into a tangled frenzy; the long bangs battered her pale skin. She climbed deeper into her jersey.
Jake called again, closer this time. The wind whipped his words away, but his distress found her. It clutched her heart and made her weak lungs seize, her hacking cough called out to him. Jake scooped her up into his arms. She closed her eyes to avoid the accusation in his. She knew she should have stayed inside. She knew it was stupid, but she had to see it again. For the last time. She tried to form the words. To explain.
“I know,” he said and held her closer. She concentrated on her breathing. In. Out. Laboured, like his steps.
These three steps will help you:
- Consider the purpose of the scene. Claire is my viewpoint character. What does she want to do? To see the cliffs. What creates the tension? Her husband is looking for her. What do we learn? She is sick, near death. Remove all the descriptions that don’t help with this.
- Reconsider adverbs and adjectives. First identify all the adverbs and adjectives and decide which are redundant, e.g., Sky-blue Hunter boots. I only want the Hunter.
- Write kick-ass sentences. If I use strong nouns and verbs, I am empowering my sentences. This results in fewer adverbs and adjectives. ‘Scooped’ is better than ‘picked up’ and ‘she climbed deeper into her jersey’ shows more than the three details in the first example.
Only leave in the descriptions that help you show the story and make sure that those descriptions work hard. Specific details and illuminating descriptions are integral to a good story. Use them wisely. Kill your darlings, but make sure they deserve to die.
by Mia Botha
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