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I was looking at the last book I wrote. In it, I failed to meet the word count I had set for myself by a big margin, like 40,000 words instead of 60-70,000.

Doing a post mortem, I found that most of my work has a lot of dialogue, and very little description. But when I look at published books, they use a mixture of dialogue and description / narrative summary.

How do I add some description to my book, without turning it into "telling", or boring the reader with unnecessary detail?

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This question isn't a duplicate, but it also has useful information for you: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3637/how-to-create-space –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 8 '11 at 1:29
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5 Answers 5

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First of all, don't let yourself become a prisoner to your word count. If your story is complete and it only has 40,000 words, then so be it. It sounds like you need to ask yourself whether or not your story really is complete. If it takes place in one location and is almost entirely between two characters, then you may not have a lot to describe. However, if you are changing scenes and settings, then you need to make sure your readers are able to recognize that.

One of the ways you can do that is to identify things that are happening around them. Say for example they are walking down the street having a conversation. You can comment on how they pass under a street light or have to cross to the other side of the street because of a barking dog on the sidewalk ahead of them. The main point is to give enough information to allow your readers to picture your characters in whatever they are doing.

If you go back and add some of these things, you need to review it really carefully and make sure they add something of value to the story. If they are just there as filler, your readers are going to recognize that and get annoyed. If your additions paint a better picture, then your readers will be rewarded.

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If you want to focus on dialogue and add description, describe the dialogue. Describe how they talk, including their body language and movements as they talk, and how the other character(s) listen.

When there's two characters with different enough voices and/or points of view it's tempting to just have a page of dialogue without anything more than the first "she said". Find long chunks like this and work on breaking them up and enriching them with more detail. You (probably) don't want people to feel they're reading a dry transcript.

Describing every line is too much unless the conversation is very slow and measured, or important, but that's the opposite problem to yours.

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JUST WRITE! That is why it is called a "rough draft". It is rough and yes, it needs a lot of work.

Once you have written the entire story (no matter how words it is) go back. Read it again, and pretend you have never seen the book before. Think like a reader of your published work would. Find anything you want to change and change it. Ask LOTS of people what you should change, because many people have different opinions.

I agree with RobotNerd about descriptions. Adding small things that give life to the object is helpful, especially if you can use it to move the plot along... For example:

The dog barked fearfully. The shrill howls echoed past your bedroom window. That wasn't a good sign.

Try more description, but remember to keep it action packed!

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Think about your non-dialogue as painting a picture of everything that is going in the scene. You want your reader to have a clear picture of where your characters are, how they are positioned in their environment, what objects are in the environment, etc... This only applies to what is important to the story. You don't want to be overly descriptive--that's boring.

Try going through your draft and taking notes. For every scene, make a list of what you know about the scene based only on what you have written on the page. That will help you determine if something is missing that needs to be added. Whenever an action occurs that causes a change in the scene, make sure there is description of that action and the results of it.

To keep it interesting, the description needs to be active. Give "life" to inanimate objects in the environment by describing them with action verbs. If your character is holding a knife, instead of writing:

He held the glistening knife in his hand.

Try:

The knife glistened in his hand.

Eh, maybe not the best example, but hopefully it gives you an idea. In the first, "glisten" is an adjective; in the second, it is a verb.

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Nice answer RobotNerd. Can you expand your answer to give examples on how you would do this with dialogue? –  Shantnu Tiwari Nov 9 '11 at 9:39
    
Dialogue is an entirely different beast for me, so I can't give you direct advice on how to write dialogue. The best method I've discovered is to do a live reading with a group of friends. I get them together, give them some beer, and have them read through the script. Take notes of what does/doesn't sound natural. Record the reading if you need to. Since my friends are comedians/actors, I'll get them to improvise some new dialogue on their own and I'll take notes on that too. –  RobotNerd Nov 9 '11 at 15:55
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You don't. Don't stuff stuff into your book!

Just because you have a vague idea, what could be wrong, does not mean that it is the culprit. Or that there is a culprit at all. Maybe your amount of dialogue is just fine. How many test readers have you asked?

Adding stuff just because something feels slim is almost always a bad idea. Try to handle your (imaginary?) lack by practicing. Start a short story without using dialogues at all. Skip even the most obvious. If you think, you really have to add a dialogue skip that, too.

After you have managed this struggle, reread your work. You will find some nice narration and most probably a terrible, terrible lack of dialogues. Because you've listened to some weird guy on the Internet telling you, you should leave them out.

Mark the sections where dialogues are missing very badly. Count the length of these sections.

Now add in the dialogues (yeah, you are allowed to add stuff now ;). After you have finished, reread. Change it till you are happy with the result. Now count the length of the dialogues. Compare it with the dialogue-free part. You have a rough estimate, what the ratio for your writing could be.

Sleep one or two nights on it and then pick up your 40,000 words book again. Reread and look if really something is missing.

Still unsure? Repeat. (Oh, yes, you could also ask your test readers ...)

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