Balancing Description and Narration

“Write out of the reader’s imagination as well as your own. Supply the significant details and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.  Make the reader a co-author of the story."                                                                                          Patrick F. McManus

One of the biggest challenges I face as a writer is balancing description and narration in my writing. You don’t want to get in the way of your story, overwhelming your reader with too many details, or provide the reader with too few details, leaving them incapable of imagining the scene.  

Either way, the lack of balance will likely cause a reader to toss your story aside.  

You want to entertain not frustrate.  Author Stephen King advises writers to “say what you see, and then to get on with your story.” Don’t halt the narrative flow by wasting time describing a scene or character.

Not only should the flow of the story be unhindered, but also the reader should form a connection with it through the details.  King echos many other authors' opinions, believing “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”  The details you paint with your words allows the reader to visualize the setting and evokes recognition, which creates the desired connection.  

Lay down the blue prints of the scene or character description, but leave enough space to engage the reader’s memory bank (images, fears, opinions, etc.) that furnishes and completes the picture in their mind. 

Unfortunately, knowing when to back off isn’t the easiest task.  The first draft of a story should have minimal details.  Once the piece is critiqued, you’ll know which sections need to be expanded and which ones provided the balance.

Keep in mind the story is the writer’s main focus.  Don’t get caught up in verbose description.   

Less is more. 

Sparse, yet smart, description engages the reader’s imagination. The images, characters and setting are more vivid than anything you could of written creating a story the reader can call their own.  Making the reader more likely to pick the story up again to reminisce. 

What techniques do you employ to strike the balance between description and narration?


anvil said…
For me, it's a simple as reading it out loud. If the writing is too bore-geous (Aylet Waldman's great term for that kind of writing) I can tell with my ears, even when I can't tell with my eyes. Gorgeous, rococo writing does have a place (Angela Carter, anyone?) but only if it's in service to the story, not despite it.
Michael Offutt said…
Oh for the day when I could read an author's words as they intended them without someone coming along and saying, "Don't do this and don't do that and if you do this then no one will like it and shorten that up and straighten that out and stop using adjectives here and adverbs are bad and why do you keep doing this?!?" Anyway...rant over. I hear what you're sayin' Laura. Best of luck in finding that balance because I struggle with it as do all authors. It just occurred to me with a random thought at the delicious irony of spending years honing a get everything in balance...and then the final critic goes..."these are all perfect...okay now this book is boring." And then just slaps it on the table and walks out.

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