You could break it down into a million pieces, but broadly speaking: a novel is comprised of two core elements.
The first is narration, which has two definitions.
- The act of narration in which the narrator/protagonist tells the reader what is happening or has happened.
- Narration is anything which progresses the story. This could come in the form of prose or dialogue. If it progresses the story in one direction or another, it’s narration. Without it, you have no progress and thus no story.
The second core element is description, which is exactly what it sounds like. Whenever you describe each element found in the narrative, it’s description. You could detail curtains, a character’s appearance, the weather, and so on and so forth.
The key difference between description and narrative is that description does not progress the story. All it can do is build atmosphere or help the reader visualize your characters/setting.
That difference is what I’m focusing on in this article.
Ultimately, narration progresses the story and thus must exist, while description halts the story and is ultimately meaningless. However, narrative without description is typically boring, so they must coexist.
Your job as an Author is to find a balance between the two so that too much of one or the other doesn’t harm your story.
The question is how. How do you strike a balance between the two?
Before answering that, I’ll provide an example of what poor balance looks like.
A Novel Nightmare: How Not to Balance Narration and Description
I took a college class simply called Science Fiction. In it, we read and discussed eleven famous SF novels and dissected the genre as a whole. Was it useful? Maybe. Was it painful? Very. About half the novels were tolerable, while I straight up couldn’t get past the first ten pages of three and pretended to know what was happening during the discussion.
One was alright as a whole, but agonizing to read, but only because of poor balance between narrative and description. About half the novel was riddled with pointless description that did nothing to progress the story.
I managed to ‘read’ the whole 500-page novel by reading ONLY the dialogue. That’s right, I skipped over every line of description. And can you guess how many problems that caused?
None. I was able to discuss in colorful detail exactly what happened in the story with others who had read every word.
That novel’s crimes were three:
- It failed to engage me from the get-go
- None of its description added anything to the story
- Not a single line of description mattered to the story as a whole
That’s roughly 250 pages (70K~ words) wasted on fluff. I imagine the publisher demanding a certain word count was partially to blame, but it not being interesting description is entirely the Author’s fault.
Now you’re probably wondering exactly what this ‘boring’ description looks like. Well, sorry, it doesn’t look like anything. There is no guideline beyond ‘use evocative words and clever metaphors’.
For example, you might say this is bad:
- There was a big tree with green leaves.
- A massive, emerald-leaved tree stood firm, its countless roots reshaping the bumpy forest floor.
But you could also say the opposite. The first works just fine in a children’s book, but not in literary fiction. It’s impossible to know if either of those is truly interesting without context.
For example, two bestselling authors from the same time period employed opposing styles. Ernest Hemingway used the first, keeping everything clear cut and simple, while F. Scott Fitzgerald employed beautiful images and evocative words.
Both work just fine depending on a million factors like your genre, theme, audience, your narrator’s personality/education level, and so on. What actually makes description good or bad is this idea:
All description is boring unless it serves a purpose.
Let’s take H.P. Lovecraft as an example.
Generally speaking, each of his stories features 90% prose and 10% dialogue. And the majority of that prose doesn’t progress the story. It is pure description of a location, an entity, a character, or a character’s thoughts, etc.
By what I’ve complained about so far, you might think I’d find his stories a bore, but it’s the opposite.
Lovecraft’s descriptions are not boring because they serve a purpose. Nearly every line of description helps to build atmosphere. And because one of the goals of his stories is to inspire cosmic horror through carefully crafted atmosphere building, every one of his descriptions serve a purpose.
A description of a small statue found in a swamp could be left out of the story without any damage to the narrative. But including it can build on the story as a whole.
Readers will wonder how it got there, why it was there, who it belonged to. And if it’s a rather disturbing object, readers will experience a sense of dread and pray the protagonist will get rid of it before something bad happens.
Conversely, if Lovecraft suddenly started describing how nice the sun rays looked coming in through the windowsill while we know the protagonist is about to be sucked into some portal with a million tentacles pouring out of it, it would be as stupid as it is pointless as it is out of place.
And that is exactly what was wrong with the ‘bad’ novel I referenced above. It had plenty of ‘good’ description with strong images and pretty words, but none of it mattered or added to the story as a whole.
It was a story about some weird virus or something (I can’t be bothered to remember), but giant gobs of text were spent describing snowy mountains or what the characters had for breakfast. If I wanted to read such things, I’d pick up a book about mountain climbing or a slice of life LN, not a SF medical thriller.
Readers don’t read novels because they want to see a bunch of unrelated events happen in a random sequence, that’s what real life is and nobody wants to have any more of that than they already do.
Readers demand progress from stories. And the only way you attain constant progress is to make every sentence contribute to progressing the story. Meaningless description brings the action to a halt, so make it matter.
Ok, but how do I make my description matter?
You might have guessed based on the above, but there are several ways. Of which I will present in a list. And to each of the points, I ask you to ask this question: does my description reflect on this or is it relative to this?
Do Your Descriptions Fit Your Genre?
There’s no right answer to this as it all kind-of depends, but let me put it to you this way—
If you’re writing a Science Fiction (SF) LN, would it make sense to describe a forest, stream, or any other aspect of the natural world in detail?
Perhaps. Just because its SF doesn’t mean it can’t have a fantasy-esque setting. Orcs could be firing laser rifles and dwarves could be running mega-corporations.
But let’s say your SF LN follows the typical conventions of the genre. It’s set in a futuristic world with lots of concrete and metal, spaceships, technology, and so on.
Nature still exists, but would spending several pages describing it be relative to your genre? Do you think readers came to read about nature if they picked up your LN?
I can’t imagine they did.
If they did, they’d have grabbed a fantasy LN. The snowy mountain climb didn’t work in the aforementioned SF medical thriller, so it probably won’t mesh well in your space opera either.
Do Your Descriptions Fit Your Themes?
This word has several definitions, but the one I’m addressing refers to the overall ‘feel’ of your LN. Let’s say it’s in the romance genre. This would typically include themes of:
- Romantic Love
- Inner feelings that are hard to express
- The troubles of close relationships
And the overall ‘feel’ could be that of:
- Ooey-gooey romance that makes readers smile (or gag)
- Sorrow if things keep going poorly for the couple
Among many others. Every novel has a unique feel (theme) that readers should pick up on within the first few chapters. While the primary way it is established is through narration, good description can contribute too.
Your chapter 3 might show the principal couple walking to school together. They have a dialogue about what club or sports team they’re thinking about joining.
Both of those are narration. The story is progressing. But in-between all that, you’ll need description. Description that matches that overall feel.
Typically, it would focus on the protagonist’s inner thoughts towards her love interest. She could be wondering what he thinks about her new haircut, if he noticed she’s wearing the lip gloss he bought for her last week, if it would be weird for her to join the same club as him, etc.
You might also include descriptions of the path they’re on, how long it takes to reach the school, other students and passerby. It’s pretty easy to achieve consistent description, but also easy to make it feel out of place.
Doing the above would be fine if done well, but don’t:
- Describe how the crème puffs she had for breakfast were the greatest thing she’s ever eaten.
- How the recent rise in gas prices has resulted in fewer cars on the street they’re walking.
Both of these could be relevant to your story and would both be relevant to the scene, but they don’t mesh with the theme.
If he gave her the crème puffs, feel free to include the first. If either character is an economy buff and is prone to making such observations, include the latter.
But in general—if a bit of description doesn’t match the overall ‘feel’ of your LN, it’s a good idea to just leave it out.
Do Your Descriptions Appeal to Your Audience?
Do you know your audience? Yea, me neither. Your book could be read by anyone from anywhere, but it’s safe to assume who the majority of your audience will be.
If you write for children under 10, that’s who your audience will be. If you write fantasy LNs, your audience will be Otaku who like fantasy.
If you want to truly engage your audience, your LN’s description needs to align with their interests. And by interests I mean the style of writing they expect to find.
Style in this case referring to word choice, sentence length and structure, and amount of description vs. narration. It may be tempting to just write whatever you want and hope for the best, but it won’t end well.
Let’s examine both and break down what readers expect from them and why they work:
Children aren’t going to know a lot of big words. If you include them, they will not only fail to understand, but be frustrated at you for making them feel dumb.
Short Sentences with Simple Structures
I shouldn’t have to tell you; seventy-five-word sentences with: three commas, a colon, semicolon, and a dash—won’t be well received by a 4th grader.
More Narration than Description
For lack a better description—children are like animals. They bounce from one mode of stimulation to the next without caring to dwell on the why or how of what they’re doing.
Thus, long introspective paragraphs on what it means for the hero to set out on his journey aren’t going to engage children. They want near constant progress, which means lots of narration over description.
LN readers are of all ages, but the average age range is 14-25 based on my experience. I discovered them at 15 and my obsessive reading of them calmed down at around 21. I still read them now, but related to them best as a high-schooler. All that said:
Above Average Vocabulary
Use high-school level vocabulary for most of your text. Throw in a few ‘college’ words, but don’t turn it into a doctorate thesis written by someone with a thesaurus fetish.
You don’t want to insult your readers by treating them like grade-schoolers. All I ever wanted after puberty was for people to treat me like an adult but not give me any responsibility.
Treat them like they’re smart, but don’t make it so they have to pull out a dictionary every three sentences.
This applies to any novel of any medium outside of those targeted toward children. You risk boring readers if every sentence has the same style and structure.
Aim for a good mix of short and long sentences and the occasional dash or semicolon. This also ties into your LN’s pacing. Short sentences feel fast, while long ones feel slow.
50/50 Split of Narration and Description
In the average LN, for every line of description, there is a line of narration. Too much of one or the other might contribute to ‘bad’ pacing.
Given your audience’s average age, you don’t want to bore them with walls of description, but they like to relax and have some time to think every once in a while.
Think of it like a roller-coaster. Up (description) builds tension and gives meaning and context to the ride, while down (narration) drives the cart forward.
You can learn how to master the Light Novel writing style by checking out this article.
Do Your Descriptions Add to Your Story?
Interesting description adds to your story, while boring doesn’t. It doesn’t detract from the story in any way, but it can contribute to readers seeing your novel as a whole as ‘bad’.
It may have a great story readers truly enjoyed, but you forcing them to comb through meaningless description made the journey unpleasant. And as many popular songs will tell you, the journey is more important than the end.
Readers don’t read to get to the end, they could just hop on Wikipedia and read the summary if they did. They read to enjoy the journey your novel takes them on. Thus, it’s important for every step of that journey to be interesting (having a purpose).
This is as simple as asking yourself: does this bit of description have any bearing on my story?
If yes, like in the Lovecraft example above, leave it in—develop it further if you want.
If no, slice it to ribbons. If a reader can understand your novel by only reading the dialogue, you might not have failed, but I wouldn’t call it a success either. And chances are that reader won’t be coming back for volume two.
Do Your Descriptions Add to Your Characters?
An interesting character has a lot to say or at least think. But not everything they think (which counts as description if it doesn’t progress the story) is necessarily interesting.
As in the above example, if a character in a romance LN ponders her country’s recent economic downturn, it probably won’t serve much of a purpose. But it also can depending on the character’s personality/backstory.
It might seem like there’s no right answer here, but you’ll find it by asking this question: Does this description mean something for my character(s)?
If yes, keep it. Even if your character’s thoughts/observations don’t progress the primary story, they do progress their own story. Each character has their own story to tell through their personality, past, and thoughts. And describing such things are integral to good character development.
If no, remove it or better yet, replace it with something interesting. Ditch the economic commentary for the protagonist speculating on whether or not the hottest girl in class has an eye on her love interest.
Do Your Descriptions Add to Your World?
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that description is your sole means of detailing your LN’s world.
Narration can via explaining where the characters are going, which faction they’ll be fighting, and so on, but that’s about it.
You must use description to detail those locations and factions. But again, this can be dangerous. It makes sense to detail everywhere your characters go so readers can build a strong image of your world in their mind. But that’s not totally true.
The snowy mountain can add to your world if your world is about mountains and this one in particular is unique and relevant to the story.
However, if the snowy mountain is just that and is not unique in any way or reflects on your world as a whole, then why include it all?
You can turn a ten-page detailed description of some lame snowy mountain into a single sentence: “During our journey to the next battleground, we traversed a snowy mountain.” Boom, done.
Now, if your characters get lost on it and it leads to new story beats or interesting character development, keep the descriptions so we can really feel their terror. But if they just need to go from A to B, don’t waste readers’ time.
Always ask: Does this description mean something for my world?
Q: Does a description of a spooky forest enhance readers’ understanding of my cyberpunk dystopia?
A: No, probably not. They might need to go through one, but I doubt describing it will add to your cityscape covered in neon and graffiti.
Q: Does a description of a small village mean something for my fantasy?
A: Yes, most likely. You can detail building structures, farmland, the commonfolk and how they live, and much more. All this can add to your world in some way.
Again, this is all conditional. Different worlds will demand different types of description. All I ask is that make each line truly matter to your world as a whole.
Your Descriptions Should Never Leave Readers Asking This
You never want readers to look at a block of description and ask themselves: why am I reading this?
And so, for the millionth time, I will tell you: balance is key.
Too much narration can lead to a mind-boggling story with too much going on or get blamed for ‘too-fast’ pacing.
Too much pointless description can lead to being blamed for ‘too-slow’ pacing or cause readers like me to throw your book against the wall from boredom (unless they’re being forced to for a grade…).
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as perfect balance. You could just do 50/50 and call it a day, but it will depend on your story.
Really it comes down to personal preference. I prefer a focus on narrative, while others might insist on lots of description.
For me, the less time wasted on long descriptions gives me more space to explain my world and develop my characters. Writers like Lovecraft would rather craft a simple story with few characters but evoke powerful emotions through brilliant, purposeful description.
Find the balance that works for you and run with it. Just don’t describe that snowy mountain if it doesn’t have a purpose. Or I will find you.