Action in a novel happens through dialog, description, and exposition. Dialog is the beating emotional heart of your characters, but it cannot stand alone; dialog needs setting and motion in order to give it meaning. Setting the scene needs to be high on a writer’s priority list in order to give his characters a place to act and emote. Description treats the current setting of the story, detailing those persons, places, and things around which the action is currently taking place and often are performing those actions themselve. Exposition provides the reader with information that cannot be observed, or explicitly lays out information that must be deduced. Description and exposition provide the foundation for dialog, and we will treat all three this week.
Description lays the groundwork for most of a novel, impersonally detailing the surroundings containing the characters and their world. Description is a powerful tool that substitutes for the reader’s eyes and ears in the novel. The reader is wholly dependent on the writer to provide the information through which the world of the novel will be interpreted. The writer has an obligation to make that description complete. In this sense, complete doesn’t mean that the descriptive passage details everything in the area, but that the descriptive passage contains all of the information immediately or presently relevant to the reader. As the reader needs to observe new things about the setting, more description can be layered in order to provide the details of the setting.
There is a particular danger in using descriptive passages when providing the initial setting for a scene; the writer often faces the temptation of providing all the information possible all at once. This tendency is sometimes referred to as a data dump. The reader is overwhelmed with information, experiencing a virtual sensory overload as he does not yet know which part of the description is going to be relevant to the immediate action of the story. As additional portions of the setting become important or additional details become relevant, they may be revealed in future paragraphs. This is a good place to introduce one of the Rules of 4: a paragraph may only contain four descriptive sentences, and one of those must describe the characters.
For the purpose of description, a “character” need not be a person. A “character” need only be the subject of an action. In describing a storm, the writer is allowed to spend three sentences detailing the wind, the rain, and the ocean swells. His last sentence must describe the plight and condition of the boat navigating the fearsome waters. As far as the reader is concerned, the boat is their point of identification within the setting, that makes it a “character”. Applying this rule in this way breaks up long descriptive passages, and gives the reader a context in which to frame the action and setting.
Description is applied to people and objects as well as settings. Detail-oriented writers can provide every crease and fold of their character’s garments, but few readers are going to appreciate this level of detail. Another Rule of 4 applies when detailing people or objects within a setting: when detailing a person or thing, only four points of identification may be used for each paragraph. Trimming the details in this way allows the reader to participate in describing characters and important objects by filling in the nuances from his own imagination. This also forces the writer to focus on things that are truly important to advancing the action within his story.
Descriptive passages only apply to those things that can be observed with the five senses, anything else is exposition. The truth is that the reader will always fill in the details of any given scene, setting, or person from bits and pieces of his own experience. The writer’s job is to provide the reader with just enough particulars so that the readers’ perception materially resembles the images the writer is attempting to convey. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a reader’s attention only lasts for a paragraph.