If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me say you shouldn’t stop the narrative for description. But what does that mean?
What does “don’t stop the narrative for description” mean?
Stopping the narrative for description means that you put the breaks on the action in the scene to write descriptions of characters or settings, for example:
The wind flung Marin’s wavy black hair into her face. She was smaller than the other girls her age, but she was stronger than most. Her arms and legs were long and well-muscled, the product of years spent climbing, hiking, and sailing. She had honey-colored eyes, long lashes, and bronze skin–a striking combination, which she inherited from her mother. Her clothing, however, was plain and purely functional: waxed canvas pants, a raw denim shirt, and leather boots. [Nightfall, Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski, p2]
In this example, the reader is with the main character Marin as she’s walking to a cliff and thinking about the setting, which is important to the plot. Then all that stops and the writers launch into a paragraph-long description of the character. Then, the story starts again.
In that paragraph, no story happened. The narrative stopped for description.
Sure, readers need to know what stuff looks like, but yanking their thought train from one track to another is irritating and disorientating. Further, stopping the story like that pulls them out of the scene they were imagining because the scene disappears. It reminds them that they’re reading. They’re no longer lost in your story.
But, we need to describe our characters so our reader can visualise a more detailed scene, right? How do we do it without stopping the narrative?
So how do you describe characters?
The answer is in the first line of that descriptive paragraph: reveal your character’s appearance through their interactions with the scene. When Marin’s hair blew into her face, the scene in my head was engaging. Then everything froze and she was on a boat and her eyes were yellow.
Another great example is on the first page of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
Dudley, who was so large his bottom drooped over either side of the kitchen chair, grinned and turned to Harry.
The kitchen is still there. There’s movement. I can picture Dudley without being pulled out of the scene.
Another thing to consider is mentioning only things the narrator would notice at the given time. The narrator paid attention to Marin’s hair because it blew in her face and he noticed it. Then he checked her out from head to toe and went time travelling.
The thing is, the reader’s attention had been called to her feet on page one because she was crushing thistle under them. It would have been a richer picture if I’d known what she was wearing on her feet. She shivered too, a good opportunity to tell me what she was wearing on her arms. Her eyelashes though? Why would the narrator’s attention be on her eyelashes right now? And why should the reader’s?
So to keep the reader engaged in your story—to write vivid scenes rich in detail that retain your reader’s attention—don’t stop the narrative for description. Instead, have your character interact with the scene and look for opportunities to slot in details that don’t misplace the reader’s attention.