Ask the Editor

Ask the Editor: September/October 2019 Edition

What is the most common problem you see in manuscripts?

I realize that authors have probably envisioned every setting to its smallest detail and know characters to the bone. But children’s books, in particular, need to have a quick pace and lots of action. Describing every setting in detail or writing a long exposition on a character drags the story down and doesn’t leave any room for the readers’ imagination, making the reading experience less immersive. Finding the right balance—telling enough but not too much—is the art of a great storyteller.

Compare this scene, written two different ways. We know from the last chapter that the main character, Gabriel, heard weird noises in his bedroom earlier.

Heavy description

Gabriel came in through the back door into the kitchen. His mother was cooking, and he looked out the window, wondering when his sister was coming home. He went into the living room and headed for the sofa. The walls were white, the curtains had flowers on them, and there was shag carpet on the floor. “Gabe,“ his dad said, “you need to go to your room and get your homework done before dinner.” Gabriel thought about the noises and was scared, but he got up from the sofa, walked by the table, went into the hall and started up the stairs, down the hall to his bedroom.

Light description

When Gabriel returned home, he was heading toward the sofa when his dad, looking over the top of his paper, said, “Gabe, you need to go do your homework before dinner.” Gabriel stopped and looked at his dad. “Now,” his dad said, going back to his paper. Gabriel didn’t answer but slowly started up the stairs, hoping his sister was coming home soon.

Though the second version was shorter, we know that there is some distance between Gabriel and his dad, and his dad’s parenting style might be authoritarian. We know Gabriel is scared without being told by the narrator. The person Gabriel trusts is his sister, and he is wondering when she is coming home because he would feel safer, which we didn’t know from the longer narrative. In general, description should only be written to play a role in the story, revealing something about the characters or part of the plot.