The Art of Narration: the things a narrator doesn’t need to say

This is a detail I would love to describe!!! So gorgeous.... What's not important here? Oh, I don't know, how many leaves are on the stalk of the flower. I'd much rather know whether the flower is standing alone, or whether it's in a garden surrounded by other flowers to give me a better sense of where the snail is and what the global is I'm working with.

This is a detail I would love to describe!!! So gorgeous…. But what’s not important here? How many leaves are on the stalk of the flower, perhaps. How dry the soil is. I’d much rather know whether the flower is standing alone, or whether it’s in a garden surrounded by other flowers. That would give me a better sense of where the snail is and help set a tone. Maybe the number of leaves would matter, if it’s zero or one, and the tone I’m trying to set is one of isolation….. You see, good description involves knowing what to emphasize for a specific effect.

I’m not just focusing on my creative writing these days. As I’m beginning to do some editing and translation freelance work, I realize how much I love working with fiction, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. And I’m reminded of the mistakes I would make as a newbie writer–and still do from time to time, much more often than I’d like to admit, if I’m honest with myself. (That’s why editing is awesome.) Everyone knows that good editing involves a lot of moving things around and even more deletion. But why is that the case?

I can only speak for what I’ve learned from my own writing development and my own errors. And the things that I found myself deleting starting out were especially related to narrative segments. These sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, were: redundant/too detailed, or not interesting/not needed


This is where adverbs are particularly large offenders. When I started writing, I was too preoccupied with making absolutely sure the point I was trying to make would come across to a reader. This led to lengthy, complex paragraphs describing emotional states of characters whose emotions should rather be made evident by their simple words and actions.

I would not only, for instance, have a character ask, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I would note he asked that angrily while storming into a room and feeling more livid than he could ever remember feeling in his life. All that’s needed there is the simple dialogue. It’s plain, it’s direct, and it most certainly clarifies that the person speaking is angry or at the least highly annoyed. There’s no need for more.

I had to learn as a writer to treat my readers with respect and to rely on their common sense to pick up on cues, to figure things out without directly stating everything…. Truly, it’s a respect thing, and my readers deserve that respect. The best writing is always subtle that way. It weaves a web to ensnare you, it doesn’t jump up out of nowhere with a baseball bat and club you over the head.


How many times have you ever read that a character, before going to bed, got undressed and put on her pajamas, brushed her teeth, flossed her teeth, cleaned her face, took out her contact lenses, filled a glass of water to put on the bedside table, used the toilet, washed her hands, and then turned out the lights before turning down the sheets? How often have you gotten a detailed step by step of someone’s morning routine, or two characters going through four different possible times to meet for dinner, none of which work, complete with excuses as to why, before they find a day that works?

It’s very tempting as a beginning writer to think that giving tons and tons of detail makes the story seem real, because a certain kind of detail is, indeed, critical to good fiction. I used to think I had to be much more specific in my descriptions and narration than I needed to for the story to make sense. I had to learn that good description involves knowing what to emphasize, not throwing everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes that) at the reader. Too much nit-picky, uberprecise detail become an overload that is boring, frustrating, and completely unnecessary. Whether your narration is first or third person, there are some things no one needs or wants to know. They’re just omitted…. It’s standard in all literature. I know this kind of example is overused, but how many times does Harry Potter wake up in his dormitory at Hogwarts throughout his series? And how many times do we follow him to the bathroom before he goes down to the Great Hall to meet Ron and Hermione for breakfast, where something interesting does happen before their first class? If you think about, you know he stopped at the loo. We all do. Every morning. That doesn’t mean it’s something people need to read about.


25 responses to “The Art of Narration: the things a narrator doesn’t need to say

  1. I’ve just finished what I thought was the final proofread on one of my books, and I still found so many bits I could cut out. From reduntant wording (really, I don’t need to say that my hero mapped out his planned trajectory. If he mapped it out, it’s a given that he planned it!), to repeating the same thing in two consecutive paragraphs with only minor wording changes. The more you can slim these bits down, the better I think.

    • it really is! sometimes you’ve just gotta write what you’ve gotta write and block the rest of it out! otherwise, like you said, you’ll just choke. I had to do that with my first novel. I could never, ever ever publish it. But I learned so much from it. I can’t imagine my life without having written in, and if I’d worried about stuff like that I’d never have written it!

  2. Good article, excellent tips for writers new and old alike. πŸ™‚

  3. I enjoyed reading your post!

  4. Pingback: The things a narrator doesn’t need to say | Julianne Q Johnson

  5. I saw this post yesterday when I was cruising through some communities and to be honest, I ignored it. I generally do ignore posts about grammar or common mistakes writers make and the like. Then I read your post about nixing a few things in your novel and it led me to read this post. I was a little surprised. As someone who prides myself on not making common mistakes many others make, I realized after reading this post I was guilty. I have this bad habit of adding too much detail about how the character feels when speaking. I write it without the extra info at first but then when I go back to edit later, I question whether or not the reader will pick up on the emotional state. I found I was adding the emotional extras because I wanted to be absolutely certain the reader got it. So, thank you, this post was very helpful for getting me down off my high horse.

    • you’re very welcome! i’m glad you found the post helpful πŸ™‚ those kinds of mistakes are definitely things I find myself editing out…after, like you, editing them in upon occasion! great minds think alike, I guess! πŸ™‚

  6. Reblogged this on moniquerockliffe and commented:
    Some great advice! It is important to maintain balance when describing or setting up a scene. Too much and the reader become bored; too little and the reader feels the story lacks meat or emotional impact! What is your opinion on this?

  7. Wonderful point about details. I hope to hone my CHOICE of details in my descriptions in my next draft. Timely reminder!

  8. Great write-up. It’s always a balancing act to figure out when to allow the reader to make their own judgements and move the story along themselves, as opposed to keeping them moving along your ideal path. I find that the more I allow the reader to “create”, the better the book ends up being.

    Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ~Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry

  9. Thank you very much for liking my post at our WordPress blog, Ghost Writer, Inc. I couldn’t find any other way than this to communicate with you. I wanted to offer you a discount on our book editing services. We have affordable, expert, experienced book editors who can help you polish a manuscript and prepare it to be shown to literary agents and book publishers. Please do use our services whenever you need a great book editing job done for you.

  10. Great stuff – glad I stumbled on your blog as I’m embarking on a first revision and second edit of my work in progress. You just gave me some good advice to go forward with. Thanks!

  11. Hi Victoria, thanks for the support, but do i really need to know now, as i pass the 80,000 word mark on book 3 of trilogy that i need to take out adjectives n stuff!! AGH sooooooo much editttttiioiiinnnnnnggggggg to do
    No seriously, very good points, well made

  12. This is some amazing advice, thanks for sharing it. I find editing one of the hardest things to do, and this has given me a few more things to think about when doing so, in a good way though. It’ll help me streamline my writing a lot more than previously.
    Thanks again!

  13. I do believe all of the concepts you’ve offered for your
    post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work.
    Still, the posts are very short for beginners.
    May you please lengthen them a bit from next
    time? Thanks for the post.

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