Prose is a delicate balance of dialogue, action, description, and narrative. Too much or too little of any of these, and you lose the balance and your reader gets board or frustrated and walks away. Thing is, every author creates his or her own balance. For instance, Frank Herbert has a massive amount of description in his writing, and comparatively little dialogue. However, Herbert’s description is fascinating. I’ve been told a number of times, and I have to agree, that while reading Herbert’s descriptions of the desert in Dune your mouth dries out and you start feeling hot. Compare this to Glen Cook, who has a lot of dialogue and action with relatively little description, or Clive Cussler, who has a lot of action and less description and dialogue, and it’s easy to feel more than a little confused about how writing actually works. Here’s the thing: the balance is your own, but the balance is still important.
First of all, remember that you can’t please everyone. Every reader is going to like or dislike something different about your writing. Sometimes one reader will be bored with something another reader finds intriguing. Sometimes one reader will be put off by something another reader enjoys. I think I’ve said this before, but remember that while there are plenty of things that everyone agrees is bad writing, there is almost nothing that everyone agrees is good writing. I know people who scoff at Stephen King, look down their noses at Tolkien, and have nothing positive to say about Twain.
Second, remember that over-doing one thing is generally bad. Herbert can get away with massive amounts of description because Herbert’s description makes your mouth dry out and your eyes water. Chances are that you are not Frank Herbert, so don’t try to be. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write is a way that is comfortable to you. If you like description, be descriptive, but be aware of what is enough, and what is too much. Listen to people who read your work and give feedback instead of arguing with them (this is one of my biggest problems as a writer). However, as Kipling’s poem says ‘If all men count with you, but none too much’. You are not writing to an audience of one editor. I generally try to get multiple people to read what I write, and if one person brings up an issue I log it. If two people bring up the same issue, I listen. If three or more people bring up the same issue, then I know its something that needs to change.
Third, remember that none of the above should be non-existent in your writing. All the action and dialogue don’t matter if I have no idea where anyone is or what they look like. Beautiful descriptions are kind of pointless if no-one ever does anything. There are a few specific pieced that focus entirely on one or the other, but they tend to be both short and rare. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of skill to write even a short story that only includes one of the important components, and even these tend to include some form of the other components, just not a direct form.
Lastly, remember to vary your use of all of these components. If you only use still descriptions, people will get bored. If you only use living descriptions, people will get confused. Similarly, if your characters all talk the same, or if specific actions are always described in the same way, then your readers will get frustrated.
The key to writing well is to write. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and don’t be afraid of writing badly. If you don’t like it, no one else has to read it, and if you show it to a few people and they don’t like it, then you can keep it to yourself. There are very few author’s whose first books are incredible, or even published for that matter. We have to practice, and we all start out writing badly. Instead of being afraid of that, use it.
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