when writing how do you know when enough is enough

When Writing, How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?

how to tell when enough is enough in your writingLast month, I invited you to tell me what topics you’d like me to write about. You flooded my inbox and comments section with suggestions. (I scheduled this as an “easy” post that wouldn’t require much maintenance while I was in the midst of the a big move. When I logged on that first day to over a hundred comments needing to be approved, I was all, Wha? Gah— Ahhh!)

I’m psyched by your enthusiasm—and excited to have such a deep well of ideas to draw from for future posts. So, first off—thank you for contributing to the discussion!

And, second, let’s get started…

How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?

One of the first questions in the queue to catch my eye was Karen Keil’s:

My biggest issues have to do with the term “enough.” How do I know when I have described enough, not described enough, edited enough, not edited enough, dialogued enough, not dialogued enough, been humorous enough… etc.

One of the most difficult things about the art form of writing is how… unquantifiable many aspects are.

What is story but a great big blast of colors and feels right smack in your face?

As a reader or viewer, you just know when something works or it doesn’t. (Lack of artistic credentials has never been—nor ever should be—enough to hold anyone back from passionately loving or hating a piece of art). Explaining the why of any particular technique’s success or lack thereof is much harder. Indeed, even identifying which particular technique is at play sometimes seems like trying to figure out what the elephant is by poking at it in the dark.

Although story is a hugely complicated beast, made up of thousands of tiny individual pieces, it should never look that way. Or at least not when done well. When done well, a story just seems like… a story. It’s cohesive, every piece and every technique flowing effortlessly into the next to create, not a mosaic, but a living photograph.

That’s the beauty of art.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s also the very thing that causes huge pain points for the artist.

We must learn to deconstruct the living photograph into the individual pixels that create it. Otherwise, we will never be able to identify what’s gone wrong when one of the colors is incorrect or over-saturated or blacked out.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to questions of what is “enough” in any aspect of your story.

The reason this is a difficult problem is the very fact that it is so abstract. There are no concrete answers. What might be enough description or dialogue in one section of the story will not be enough in another section. Learning to understand when enough is enough in your story is largely a matter of refining your storytelling instincts to the point where you can just feel whether something is too sparse or too excessive.

So how do you learn to refine those instincts? What that question is really asking is: How do you take your vague, sometimes-hard-to-access feelings about your story and turn them into a conscious understanding based on quantifiable parameters?

Ultimately, that’s what the entire pursuit of story theory and technique has been about for me. You could argue that the entire body of work I’ve created in this blog and my how-to books has been my effort to answer that question. But today, in response to Karen’s question, let’s specifically look at ways you can quantify when you’ve done “enough” in the four sections she’s highlighted.

1. How Much Description Is Enough?

Why not start with the toughest one first, right?

Finding that sweet spot between “too much description” and “not enough description” is a tricky one for many writers. Most of us start out info-dumping descriptive details like a garbage truck the day after Christmas. We want readers to see everything we see: every room of the character’s childhood house, every freckle on the love interest’s nose, every piece of clothing in the protagonist’s warrior ensemble.

But then somewhere along the line, a wise beta reader slaps us with the dictate to “trim the description.” So we overcompensate, looking for that one, right “telling” detail that pops the whole setting without requiring detailed descriptions.

And then… another beta reader tells us, “I can’t get any kind of sense of the setting these characters are supposed to be in.”

Gah. Maddening.

This seesawing between extremes is, however, an important part of honing those storytelling instincts. Learning to find the sweet spot of “enough” description is very much a matter of trial and error.

Last spring, I wrote an entry in the Most Common Writing Mistakes series about “Too Much Description.” In it, I wrote over-the-top examples of what “too much” description looked like. Then I went hunting for examples, from some of my favorite authors, of what the “just right” amount of description looked like. Ironically, many of their excellent descriptions actually ended up being longer than the egregious examples I created.

The lesson here is that “enough” description has nothing to do with word count. It has everything to do with pertinence; with finding the right details; and looking at settings, people, and objects through the strict viewpoint of the narration.

Know exactly what effect you’re trying to achieve in any given passage.

  • Return of the Native Thomas HardyIs the whole point to introduce the setting? Well then, maybe you can get away with a chapter’s worth of description as Thomas Hardy famously did in Return of the Native (or maybe not).
  • Is the point to quickly enliven a walk-on character? Then a swift, well-chosen detail will likely suffice.
  • Is the scene focused on advancing the plot? Then opt for interspersing details throughout the scene, as the characters interact with them.

Study how your favorite authors utilize description. Even go so far as to copy out whole passages of their work. Description is rarely just dumped into a story one huge paragraph at a time. Most of the time, it is a living, breathing part of the story, interacting with every other part, sentence by sentence and even word by word.

2. How Much Editing Is Enough?

Now we take a temporary step back from the nitty-gritty of actual technique to look at the broader topic of how much time we should be spending on the story itself.

To me, the question of “when should I stop editing” shares the same pitfalls as the question of “when should I write ‘the end’?”

Alice in Wonderland Lewis CarrollLewis Carroll said it with appropriate gravity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

In short, just as choosing when to write “the end” to your story is not an arbitrary decision, neither is choosing when you stop editing.

You stop editing when the story is finished—when there is nothing more to fix.

That might sound a little blithe. After all, most of us agree with Leonardo da Vinci that:

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

And it’s true. There is always something an author wants to change about a story. We are always growing, always learning—which means the totality of understanding we bring to a story on any given day will always be surpassed by what we have learned on the next. Plus, there’s the little fact that our intent always grows at a slightly faster rate than our ability to execute it.

Still, there are quantifiable ways in which to judge whether or not a story has reached a reasonable level of completion—in both the writing and the editing. For the most part, both approaches overlap.

There are two fundamental questions I ask myself to help me know whether I’m finished with a story or not:

1. Is the Story Structurally Complete?

The only way to know whether a story has reached its end—whether it is a complete whole—is to examine whether or not it is structurally cohesive and complete. When structure is observed, you never have to guess when it’s time to end a story—it just ends itself after the Climactic Moment.

2. Is There Anything Specific Left to Change?

Even after you’ve written/edited your story into a state of structural wholeness, you will very likely still find weaknesses to fix. A structurally sound story doesn’t, by any means, instantly qualify as a good story. You may still find yourself identifying any number of issues—everything from sloppy prose (too much/too little description, anyone?) to sloppy themes to ugly plot holes to ugly scene structure.

Don’t approach your editing like a street brawl: don’t just go in swinging. Have a plan. Consciously evaluate your story and make a list of all the problems you know need fixing. Then fix them. Then consciously re-evaluate your story. Make another list. Fix the problems on the list. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Until… there’s nothing left on your list.

Once you’ve got an empty list, you’re done editing.

But what if your list never empties? After all, if there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, there will always be more imperfections to address.

Two things.

First off, differentiate between things you think might be a problem with the story (aka, heretofore unsubstantiated doubts) and things you know are problemsHaving doubts about a story is not the same as identifying specific problems that need to be addressed.

Second, know when to cut loose. Maybe you’ll never reach the very end of that list of edits. But there will come a time when you get close enough that it counts. For this, I like deadlines. I tell myself I have five years, from outline to final edit, to get a story right. If it’s not right by then, it’s time to cut loose and move on.

3. How Much Dialogue Is Enough?

I’d like to say there’s no such thing as too much dialogue—because personally I adore dialogue. But the more accurate approach to the proper amount of dialogue is different, if just as simple.

Dialogue becomes too much at the exact moment it isn’t pertinent to the story.

Often, authors will “write their way into dialogue” in order to figure out a scene or a conversation as they go. Dialogue is exceptionally characterizing, so feeling your way through a dialogue section may also be a (great) way of learning about who your characters really are, from the inside out.

This is is all fine and well in the first draft. But meandering conversations that only gradually find their way to a point—or, just as faulty, conversations that exist just for the sake of conversation—are always going to be problematic.

Just as you should examine every single sentence of narrative to make sure each one contributes in its own right, so too you should also examine every line of dialogue. If it contributes—either by advancing the plot, developing the character, or revealing important information—then it belongs. If not, it’s too much.

One of an author’s most important (and, in some ways, most difficult) jobs is being able to identify the purpose of each word in the narrative. Once you learn to do this, it becomes easy to identify which ones belong and which ones do not.

4. How Much Humor Is Enough?

My response to humor is kinda like my response to dialogue: no such thing as too much, right?

Except that, too, is facetious. Really, what I’m responding to is the element of entertainment both dialogue and humor bring to story. I do dearly love to be entertained.

If your humor is entertaining (i.e., it works), then you’ve already aced its primary reason for existing.

Beyond that, humor shares other qualifiers with dialogue in that it must be pertinent to the story. Funny can’t exist just to be funny. It must offer resonance and contribute to cohesion.

But do you need humor?

I honestly can’t think of a single story that can’t benefit from a meaningful inclusion of humor at appropriate moments. But humor, perhaps more than any other element of story, must flow. You can’t force it. It must arise from the situations and characters you’ve already created.

Whenever you have the opportunity to include humor, go for it. But if those opportunities aren’t arising, don’t worry. However entertaining humor may be, it’s not a prerequisite to an amazing story. There’s many a great story out there that cracks nary a smile.

***

Know what effect you’re trying to achieve in your writing and stick to that with confidence. The “enough” you’re seeking will always find its balance when you’re able to realize your intended effect. If, by the story’s end, you’ve succeeded in creating that effect, then your story is “enough.” If not, it’s time to go back and figure out whether you’re missing the mark because you’ve included “too much” or “too little” of any of the above elements.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you struggle with knowing when enough is enough in certain areas of your writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. A good answer to an important question.

    I have one rule about description, dialogue, humor, and other things that could be considered “style”: figure out how much of it you’d be willing to add in *every* similar case, forever.

    If you’re not comfortable writing more than a couple lines of description, don’t, and never feel guilty about it– instead learn how to nail an image with the right first line, and make the dialogue or the plot so colorful people don’t mind. While if you find you like setting a richer scene, you’ll know one image could use more simply because it’s below your usual length. (That’s compared to imagery of the same importance, of course.)

    It’s not the whole of the decision-making process; we still have to learn what balance of writing really works best for us, as well as how to do it justice. But asking “Do I want to write all these moments longer, or shorter?” does a lot to focus the mind, and the answer always has to be one we’re comfortable with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Understanding our own tastes as readers plays a big role in this. If you enjoy long descriptions in other people’s stories, that’s probably what you’ll be writing. If you hate long descriptions, that’s a sign you should be cutting back in your own writing.

  2. Casandra Merrritt says:

    Knowing when enough is enough is also important in the outlining process. It can be difficult to figure out how much detail you want to go into planning before starting the first draft. I am finding that it’s easiest for me to have a general idea of where the story is going, with a few fixed points (especially the ending) and also know my characters very well and have a plan for how the Lie will oppose the Truth. When I know these things, I know enough to start writing and find out the rest as I go. Almost there!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. Personally, I’ve found I do best when I’m as detailed as possible in the outline. I like to figure everything out beforehand, so I have no reason to stop and think things through when it’s time to actually start writing. But that’s always going to be a personal decision for every writer.

  3. When I write I’m always thinking about my idealised reader and how (s)he might be enjoying in terms of all these aspects at any given story stage. If (s)he is looking bored or has glazed eyes in my imagination then Whoaaaaa!

  4. Not a novel, but the video game Drakengard is completely without humor or any kind of lightheartedness to contrast its infinte darkness. The contrast doesn’t exist within the story itself, but between the story and the real life the player experiences between each session of playing. The story becomes a sort of nightmare that you more of less willingly subject yourself to.

  5. Nancy S. Thompson says:

    Scene description is a pet peeve of mine. I hate when there’s too much of it. So, as a writer, I gave myself a general rule: Treat scene description as if it were a character, integral to the entire scene, and make sure it also helps move the plot forward. Otherwise, to me, it’s just fluff and filler.

    Readers have vivid imaginations and instantly picture the scene in their heads (regardless of whether you’ve described it or not) and you don’t want to intrude on that too much. Great masters of scene description have often been Edgar Award nominees and winners, with a great example being John Hart and two of his novels, The Lost Child & Down River.

  6. The struggle is constant.

  7. I have issues with a few of these, especially pointless dialogue. I’m cutting now.

    I also wrote myself into a corner by not starting with a good outline.

    Thank you. Lots of good information here.

  8. Jenny North says:

    This is all terrific advice (as usual!), but my best rule of thumb for me is still the quote from Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” (You posted a nice little graphic of that with your post “How to Write Can’t-Look-Away Chapter Breaks” and I always keep it close!) The longer I write or edit or outline or work on dialogue or whatever I sometimes have to stop and ask myself if the effort really benefits the reader or if I’m just painting a racing stripe and flames onto the side of the story. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. And, ultimately, what that really means is: “Leave out the parts *you* would skip, if you were the reader.”

      • Jenny North says:

        I guess that also circles back to the notion that a writer should write for him/herself rather than some imagined audience. So at the end of the day is that kind of the deciding vote when you find yourself in those Goldilocks moments when you get conflicting guidance from beta readers? Sometimes there’s a tricky balance between accepting constructive feedback and being true to your authorial voice. (Especially when you’re not always confident about that voice!)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          My rule of thumb on criticism is that “two people have to agree.” I can be one of those people, obviously, so if I immediately agree with a comment, then, of course, the change will be immediately made. But if I initially disagree with a comment, only to have it echoed by someone else, then I know I need to revisit it.

  9. My enough issue has to do with time spent on completing a work, so thank you for mentioning your timeline of five years with a story. Some stories seem to flow all at once while others come in bits and pieces. I have multiple ideas in various stages of writing, and most of the time I feel like I’m doing something wrong in not sticking with one and just finishing it right away. I am realizing now that the stories are still incubating and that it’s okay to allow them time to grow (instead of just considering it a dead end).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I usually have two works-in-progress running at any given time. For example, within the next month or so, I will finish initial edits on my current book, send it off to betas, and then immediately start the outline for the sequel. So they’ll both be in play for another couple years.

  10. Ms. albina says:

    Great article, I’m going to write about the characters emotions-happy, sad, and angry. Are fighting scenes a paragraph? I mean if a character uses a denfense move like karate. How would i show that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As with all the things I mention in this post, there’s no solid rule for how long an action scene should be. You just have to feel it out according to the needs of the scene.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Thank you. on doing a character interviews how many questions do i have to use because there is a lot of them. in the character interview in your book outline. You have a lot of character questions. How do I chose the right ones for me to use for my characters?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I use them all. But it’s really personal preference. Just use whatever seems useful.

          • Ms. albina says:

            Thank you. I am figuring out my story’s year then months, days and years. I have where my characters live has eight seasons and 400 days in a year with 50 days in a month. If where my characters live has twin moons then do I had more days. I am confused on that. My characters live in a higher dominion that is more evolved so time is different there.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Days are figured by the sun, so I don’t think moons would matter.

  11. James Ronnie Green says:

    Ms. Weiland, when is it appropriate to use profanity and sex scenes in a novel? The novel I’m writing does have some of each, but the novel itself is not primarily pornographic or vulgar. The few times I do include such scenes is because they flow from the story, not because of moral perversion. When and how should I include profane and sex scenes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As with any decision in writing, it comes down to what the story needs. What’s necessary for the overall effect you’re trying to create, and what’s necessary to properly move the the plot and character development? When those two things are exceeded, that’s where elements become gratuitous.

  12. My issue has to do with the world building for my fantasy WIP. I never understood the so-called world building desease, but now I do. I have this feeling that I could go on forever with this world building. I am also a recovering perfectionist, so that doesn’t help either.

    Last week I decided I would ask myself the question: do I need to know this to tell the story well? Thinking about whether or not it serves the story helps me to not get lost in all the details of my world. After all, I want to tell a story, I do not want to write a historical and social study book about a fantasy world…

  13. Casandra Merritt says:

    I have a question about character arcs. In a trilogy, can a character follow an arc in which he falls away from the truth for the first two books (possibly a corruption arc or a disillusionment arc) and then follow a positive change arc for the last book? Would it work for him to follow one arc over the course of two books? What I have in mind is a character who starts out believing a lie and becomes more entrenched in that lie as the story goes on. He end up in a worse place at the end of each book until the third plot point of the last book, where he realizes the truth and gives his life fighting for it in the climax. Thanks.

  14. Casandra Merritt says:

    Sorry, I didn’t realize that you responded to my message up there. I thought it hadn’t sent.

  15. Caleb Wright says:

    Valid points and amazing article thank you. It inspires me to push my book further. https://amzn.to/2qz9EgX

  16. Karin Nalepa says:

    I wonder if one of the underlying issues is trusting yourself as a writer? When everything comes down to judgment, if you don’t trust your own judgment (“I’m not good enough to know…”), then it’s difficult to make the call. On this and many other things, maybe it comes down to confidence! I should have asked that as my question instead – how do you gain enough confidence in your own abilities to make the calls (enough dialogue, when to end, etc.)?

  17. Casandra Merritt says:

    Does the Midpoint always need to reveal something that readers haven’t yet learned, or can it sometimes reveal something that the protagonist doesn’t know, but readers do?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As the centerpiece of your entire story, the Midpoint needs to be a major moment of drama. Simply from the perspective of character arc, it’s not important that the revelation be new to readers. But it’s best when you can hit readers with something really exciting and unexpected at this point.

  18. Casandra Merritt says:

    Thanks, that’s kind of what I thought. Been trying to learn as much about Midpoints as possible.

  19. The editing and revision phase seem to be endless for me. I know it’s because I don’t want to move on to the next step of sending my work to beta readers. It’s the fear that it’s not good enough and they’ll think poorly of me and my work from this point on.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’re working on other elements of fiction, Janice Hardy goes into how to raise tension and conflict in a scene and gives 10 questions to ask when choosing a setting. In addition, Kristen Lamb elaborates on description: fiction without the fillers, while K. M. Weiland considers the question: how do you know when enough is enough? […]

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