Is That Really Necessary?

I’ve been reading and critiquing some unpublished chapters lately, and I’ve come across two common errors that many new writers make.

Telling too much

The first mistake is when the writer includes a lot of information that isn’t really necessary to the story. Sometimes this is backstory (I want to tell you all about this person and what brought him/her to this point), and sometimes it’s a description of a place or an event that the writer feels is important. This information about the character, a location, or an event may be well written. It may even be interesting. The question is, is it necessary?

Telling too little

The second mistake I’ve been seeing is when the writer doesn’t tell enough. Readers may not like long descriptions that take them out of the flow of the story, but they do like to picture what’s happening. In fact, today’s readers want to feel they are there, at least in part, which is one reason why stories written in the first person present tense have gained popularity (as opposed to the third person omniscient point-of-view or narrator pov that was so popular back in the early 1900s.)

How much is enough?

To be “in” the story, the reader does need some description of a place (location) and of the people (characters) who are involved. If a character is simply a “walk-on” who will not have an important role, then a simple descriptive noun may be enough: the policeman; the waitress; the secretary. But, if that secondary or tertiary character will be more than an in-and-out-of-the-scene character, a little more description may be necessary. For example: The potbellied policeman limped over to the car, or the teenage waitress dashed from table to table. A few extra words create a more visual image.

In another blog, I talked about painting with words. To say–She looked out at the lake as the sun set–tells me an action, but doesn’t create much of an image. To say–She stood on the cool sand and gazed westward as the sun slowly sank into the shimmering lake, turning the water shades of gold and orange–begins to create a picture.

The above description helps with what she’s seeing but it might still need to be expanded by adding more of the five senses (what she hears, smells, tastes). And what about the woman’s emotional response to what she’s seeing, her thoughts and/or memories? By adding to the description, the writer tells the reader not only where the character is, but why this location is important to the character.

On the other hand, to expand the scene with facts about the depth of the water—maybe this year it’s higher or lower than it has been in other years—how the lake was created by the glazier flow eons before, or how the city hires someone to rake the beach smooth every morning (unless that’s part of the plot), really wouldn’t be important in this scene. Yet, sometimes after writers have researched a location (or visited it), they want to convey all they’ve learned. It’s great to gain all of that information, and it will make the writing more realistic, but generally, less is better. Too many adverbs describing the beauty, or too many facts, can stop the story.

What the writer must constantly ask himself or herself is, “Is it necessary?” Does the reader need this information to understand the characters or the plot? Do I need to add more information so the reader will be able to see this scene as I am? Or, am I simply adding words (padding) in order to make a certain word count? If I have to cut words, what could I cut and not lose anything (other than words)?

As you do your final edits, keep asking yourself: Is that really necessary? If it isn’t, cut it.

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14 Responses to Is That Really Necessary?

  1. Do you have time or the inclination to read my memoir called “Home from the Woods?” I’m looking for a famous author’s blurb for the cover.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Rohn, I don’t have time, not right now, but I’ll get in touch with you regarding later. (And thank you for the “famous” comment. I’m afraid my “fame” is quite limited, but nice of you to think so.)

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    Fabulous example of painting the picture. I see that a lot in some stories. We need to allow readers to come along for the ride without being dragged kicking and screaming through the mud and under the wagon wheels. 🙂

  3. Joe Novara says:

    Less vs. more. Good post, Maris. I’ve been reading Donna Leon’s detective stories set in Venice. She spends many words describing the routes the characters follow on their way through the city…this bridge, that canal, that calle as if anyone but a Venetian would be able to follow without a map. Same thing with food, gestures and room settings. It’s okay if you want a leisurely beach read but eventually you feel like saying…move along. Conversely, in my own writing, I get so lean in my descriptions that it may leave too much to the reader’s imagination…lean to the point of anorexia, Picasso drawings vs. busy Bruegel paintings. I think of the first time I traveled in Europe, got off the train and started taking pictures. Later I did the math and realized I’d never be able to carry, let alone afford all the film I would shoot at that rate. So, I developed a strategy that involved spending the first day or so just absorbing a city until I identified something memorable or telling about the place that would capture the feeling I had for that location. If I wanted more record shots, I would buy postcards. I try to do the same with descriptions of people and places in my stories…impact details.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Joe, I’ve read several books where the author has taken us street by street. I’m sure for readers who live in the area, it’s a great way for them to picture the journey. For me it becomes a “Just get me there” situation (unless the journey through those streets becomes a necessary clue later in the story).

  4. paula says:

    Maris, this is the first email I opened today and I’m glad I did. I just reviewed a book which, in places, included descriptions that weren’t necessary. It read like a guidebook for getting to a specific location and added nothing to developing the setting, plot or characters. I found myself skipping some of it because it stopped the story, as you say.
    On the other hand, when a writer paints a setting or character so that the setting or character (in my words) “pops off the page,” I’m delighted. That writing stays with me and those books are usually ones I end up recommending.
    Thanks for the helpful advice once again. So sorry I missed you yesterday.

    • Maris Soule says:

      We missed you, Paula. I brought a scene that I think is too long/detailed. What I write about in my blog is often when I also face. Is it too much or too little? I’m still not sure (with that scene). I’m hoping when I go back to it, I’ll notice if it slows the story too much of if it fits.

  5. Maris,

    I appreciated your blog. It’s always difficult to know just how much description is necessary to make the story line real to readers. With historical fiction, I sometimes get too immersed in the research and then find I must cut quite a bit of what is actually not required. As you say, the important thing is using the five senses so readers actualize the story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I think every writer goes through this, especially if it’s something we’ve researched. I have a scene right now that I’m hoping isn’t jammed with too much information…but what to cut? That’s the question.

  6. BA Brittingham says:

    Very intriging post. I try to limit myself to two decent sentences that describe location, although one must be a flexible on this point. I’d rather spend more time on character development, particularly what/ how they are thinking.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’m not sure I’d want to limit myself, BA, but as you said, any limit needs to be flexible. My hope is while describing something, I’m also giving information about the character–how the location is seen through the character’s eyes and emotions.

  7. Sue Myers says:

    I really enjoy all your writing articles. You give great guidelines and ideas on how to apply them!