Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Goldilocks Zone

Today's post is about balancing description in your narrative. You don’t want too much description, or not enough description. You want to find that infamous Goldilocks Zone where the amount of description is just right.

Incorporate All the Senses

You've probably heard this one a gazillion times. That's because it works. 

Using any other sense besides sight makes a huge difference in narrative because sight is the sense most of us rely on most frequently. It's useful and necessary, but kinda boring.

The addition of sound, touch, smell and taste enhances the reader experience because those senses are used less frequently, making them stand out more.

Try to include as many senses as you can, but only the ones most important to the thing you are describing. It isn't necessary to use all the senses in every given scene.

How do you know which senses are most important? See the next item directly below.

Zoom In On Unique/Contrasting Details
  • A mouse the size of an elephant
  • An elephant the size of a mouse
  • A wagon shaped like a rocket
  • A cave that smells like laundry detergent
  • Roses that smell sour
  • A car wreck that sounded like guitar strings snapping
  • An ice cube that burns
  • Salty ice cream

Not all of your descriptions will be as contrasting as those examples, but the key is to find something so specific about the thing you’re describing that the image implants into the readers head and they begin to experience the story first-hand.

Pick one or two things that stand out in your setting or characters and describe that in great detail. (See, “Description Length”)

Filter Description Through the POV Character

When the POV character directly conveys how they feel about the sight/smell/sound/etc. they are experiencing, it makes the description more entertaining for the reader. Simple as that.

People read encyclopedias when they want a list of facts. People read stories because they want to become immersed in a world outside of their own.

Revise that info dump until it feels like something the POV character would actually think about or say in that moment. Show their personality. Express who they are on the surface and at their core. It will bring your story to life.

Skip the Mundane

We live in an age where the world is literally at our fingertips. There are some things that just don’t require much explaining in fiction. Some things are universal enough that you can mention them without going into a lot of detail about it.

You always need to set the scene, and some description is always required, but a hospital is a hospital, a church is a church, and a school is a school no matter where you go.

Of course, not all hospitals, churches or schools look exactly the same as one another. They come in all different sizes and depending on where you are in the world, they will vary in numerous other ways. Those will be the unique details you pick out to describe your specific setting.

Beyond that, readers will imagine the kind of setting that’s most familiar to them. When we read a story set inside a school for instance, we tend to imagine the school we used to attend or the school we send our children to. We imagine the hospital where we go to see our personal physician, and the church we were baptized in, etc.

Only if there is something unique about the setting as described in the story we’re reading do we begin to see a different image in our minds.

For instance, the school may be described in the story as being held in a castle with lots of secret passageways, the professors are wizards, and ghosts frequently roam the halls. (See: “Zoom In On Unique/Contrasting Details.” Also, Harry Potter.)

Description Length

It’s not the size of the boat. It’s the motion in the ocean.

Sometimes you’ll need a paragraph or more to describe something. Other times you’ll need just a sentence or two. Fantasy writers, for instance, usually need to include more description than thriller writers because of the various new concepts that are introduced in a fantastical setting.

The Goldilocks Zone is what you make it. Everyone has their own tolerance level when it comes to description. Some readers require more description than other readers do. Each individual reader will bring his or her own preferences to your story, and there’s no way to anticipate that.

Utilizing the techniques above have helped me stay within a general safe zone.


Pam Harris said...

Great post, Michael! I definitely have an issue with description. In fact, I tend to avoid it--so these tips are definitely helpful. :)

Jaime Morrow said...

This is a really great post with tips I will be putting to use in my WIP. Thanks!

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

Glad I could help.

I kinda wrote this for me too. My description is often uneven. :) When I revise I try to keep these techniques in mind.

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