Description Slows Down the Story…or Does It?

The common argument is, “Dialogue is quick while description can slow down a story.” Is this true in regards to description? Yes and no. It depends on the type of description. If the description is body language, this can actually give the story a good, steady pace without interrupting the flow. If the description is narrative, there is potential of slowing the story. Let’s break each of these down, but keep in mind that at this time we are not discussing description that sets the scene or describes a character.

Body language is important to add immediate depth to a character, but some writers hesitate employing it. Yes, too much body language has the ability to slow down a scene, but if you use the proper expressions, it can actually add to the action. Take a look at the following examples:

Dialogue tag without body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Dialogue tag with body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked as they ran through the darkened corridors.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said glaring at his friend. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Body language without dialogue tags:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason darted a quick look over his shoulder once more time as he raced through the darkened corridors with William.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William glared at him but then jutted his chin ahead as he kept running. “Of course I’m sure.” He took a sharp right and gestured for Jason to follow. “Now this way!”

Now, all three of these methods are valid ways to write. The first one is the bare minimum. You see what’s said and who’s saying it, but that’s it. It’s pretty fast-paced. The second one has a bit more. You also see what’s said, who said it, and a bit of what they’re doing. In the third one, you see what’s said, and you know who said it based on whose body language is attached to the dialogue. In addition, you get more action because there’s more shown between “Of course I’m sure,” and “Now this way.” Yes, there’s more to read, but did it slow down the action or add to the scene?

You see, the way body language can slow the pace is if you try to show every tiny expression of a character and draw out emotion. For instance, the sentence with Jason could have read like this:

“Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason panted as he darted a quick look over his shoulder while he ran with William. His lungs hurt from running, but his heart pounded in his ears telling not to stop, not to give up. He had to keep going even though he had no idea where William was leading him. Did William really know where they were going? Or was he leading him into a trap? Jason shook his head as these doubts came to mind. William was his friend. He wouldn’t betray him like that.

All right, all that description slowed down the pace. Why? Imagine it unfold like a movie, and these two guys are running down the hall full of fright, and then Jason looks over his shoulder. Suddenly everything is in super-slow motion as all these thoughts and doubts creep into his mind. That’s how it feels to me because in my mind I know in this situation it won’t take William that long to reply to Jason. This happens because narrative description was added to the scene. This is when the character’s thoughts are shown to the reader, and this has the potential to slow down the scene because it takes time to process thoughts.

Should the writing in that paragraph I showed above be avoided? No, not always. It entirely depends on the moment in the story. If it’s a slower scene with a lot of time to contemplate without concern of conversation, then have the character get lost in thought by using narrative description. However, if a character does in the middle of a conversation, the reader may forget what was said before all the thoughts bombarded them, so when the conversation continues, the reader have to backtrack again to refresh their memory. Something like this:

So how do you know Silas?” Chandler raised his brows as he lowered himself into the seat across from Demetrius.

The mention of his old friend caused Demetrius to frown a little. Their history was a long one. Both of them had been orphans and ended up in the same foster family home with several other children. Lots of the children enjoyed teasing and taunting Silas because he wasn’t a big kid but rather scrawny. One day Demetrius made it his personal mission to be Silas’ body guard. The two became fast friends and remained friends even after both of them were adopted into separate families. They ended up going to the same college, but their interests were vastly different. Demetrius enjoyed sports and girls while Silas thrived on intellectual talk and politics.

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change. “I grew up with him.” Demetrius nodded to Chandler.

Now, I don’t know about you, but reading all that description of his past friendship with Silas, I get lost in the past and memories that I forget there was a conversation occurring at this point in the story or what was said to prompt this flashback from Demetrius. I have to pause for half a second to remember the question before moving on. Sometimes I can’t remember, so I have to go back a few paragraphs to find the last piece of dialogue then skip all the description and tie it in with the response to see the flow of the conversation.

Is there a better way to do this? There are two ways you could smooth out the transition. First, you can have the first character yank the second character out of his thoughts and repeat the question. It would look something like this:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

Demetrius?” Chandler snapped his fingers in front of Demetrius’ face, jerking him out of his thoughts. Seeing he had his attention once more, Chandler frowned. “I ask you how you knew Silas, and you go all zoned-out. You all right, man?”

Yeah.” Demetrius nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry, was thinking.”

So how do you know Silas?”

Demetrius shrugged as he reached for his beer. “I grew up with him.”

It’s okay to have your characters get lost in thought and brought back abruptly. That’s realistic and makes them more human, but be careful how often you use this method. It can get tiresome after a few times.

However, another way could be having the character recall the question at the end and then answer it:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

But why was he thinking about Silas now? Demetrius furrowed his brows then looked up at Chandler and recalled how Chandler had asked him how he knew Silas. Nodding, Demetrius reached for his beer on the table. “I grew up with him.”

The key to remember with any description is: Is the placement logical in the sense of timing? Then you need to make sure the transition is smooth. If you, the author, need a reminder as to where the conversation or scene was going before the description detour, your readers might need a similar reminder, and you’d want to weave one in without being too obvious.

So yes, narrative description can slow down a scene, but you can use this to your advantage. At the same time body language can add to the action, but too much body language that includes every little micro-expression might slow down the story. It’s a fine balance and something to keep in the forefront of your mind as you write. However, don’t obsess over it. Trust the story and your own writing ability. Remember, you can always go back and revise.

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