Writing a novel for middle grade or YA? What should you describe? What should you leave out?
Let's first start with WHAT TO INCLUDE.
When a manuscript doesn't have enough description, it's like the characters are standing in front of a white board. They are talking, but the reader doesn't know where, or when, or what the characters are doing. If movies resonate more with you, think about a show where the actors are in front of the blue screen and no CGI has yet been done. In other words, you want to give the readers a sense of setting.
A simple start for setting is to mention the place the character is in, going to, leaving, etc.
Example: I walked into the kitchen.
What does a kid care about in that kitchen? It depends. Are they hungry? Or going in to do a chore? Or just looking for someone else? Show what it is by using some sensory details. Adding sensory details to the above example, achieves varied results depending on your goal and the character's circumstances.
- I walked into the kitchen and jerked open the fridge. Nothing to eat, but a dried up piece of veggie pizza.
- In the kitchen, I leaned over the pot on the stove and removed the lid. My stomach growled at the released odor of beef, potatoes and carrots. Stew. Yumm!
- I trudged into the kitchen and groaned at the heaped sink of dirty dishes. Why do I have to do all these?
- Skating into the kitchen, I found Mom removing the case off a PC. Oh, no! Who'd roped her into fixing their computer now? So much for getting her to drive me to the skate park.
Notice I changed the verb "walked" in several cased to make it more fitting for the scene I had in mind, which reminds me, choose specific verbs that add to the scene. It can show something about your character's attitude or mood, hobby or typical way of moving, family, and more. I also used specific nouns by mentioning what was found in each of these scenarios.
Show what the character is doing. Characters who are only talking aren't as interesting as characters who are doing something while they talk. Say the kids are in the school cafeteria. Is your character pushing into line to get hot lunch? At the salad bar picking up each piece of lettuce carefully before putting it on a plate? Opening a lunch box or paper sack? Shoving in huge bites of food so as to be done quickly and get to the playground? Flirting? Doing homework? Eating the sunflower butter sandwich provided for those without lunch money or lunch credits? Smearing the ketchup on their tray with an index finger? Whatever kids are doing while talking will make the conversation more interesting. Plus the reader won't realize you are slipping in a bits of description with this method.
Even when a character is alone and thinking, he or she if usually doing something: chewing on fingernails, pulling loose threads or hair, swinging a leg, tapping something, picking at a zit, plucking eyebrows, petting a cat or dog, doodling, cleaning a fish tank, listening to music, etc.
"But my character is motionless." That happens, but the senses of smell, taste, touch, temperature, sight and hearing don't stop. Try sitting totally still and take note of what you do. At this moment, besides my fingers on the keyboard, I'm hearing a fan. I can't keep my left foot still, so my flip flop is working its way off as I bounce the foot. I've sniffed (allergies). My ear itches. Characters should experience what's around them to become alive.
Be specific and make details do extra duty. What is unique to this character? She plays baseball. He loves jigsaw puzzles. Show those things with a few well-chosen details. What is unique to this character's bedroom or park or wherever? My baseball playing girl might have posters of famous baseball players on the walls of her bedroom. She might have a mitt or batt on a shelf and a uniform hanging on the back of the door. My jigsaw puzzle boy might have a card table in the family room that always has a puzzle in process. He might have puzzles glued and framed on the walls of his bedroom or a shelf with boxes and boxes of puzzles. A messy personality will deal differently with these items than a naturally neat person. You can hint a different aspects of personality with how a character treats his or her own possessions. Does something in the bedroom contradict other things we know about the character? Or point to something coming later in the plot?
WHAT TO LEAVE OUT
Excessive character description. Most of the time the reader doesn't really care what the main character looks like. They want to know more about the internal workings and the actions of the character.
Not sure how much description of your character to include? Read the introductions of main characters in books similar to what you're writing. See how much is said and how much is left to the imagination. When reading stories in first person, I notice main characters are more likely to describe someone else than themselves.
The boring parts readers skip:
- Things that an elementary aged kid or teen would not find interesting. If it has no relevance to someone that age, why mention it?
- Blocks of description especially of ordinary places and ordinary items that don't have any special relevance. Include what is different or unusual instead.
- Too much description. Readers want to get to the action (especially in middle grade stories).
"Writing the Middle Grade Novel" by Kristi Holl
Point 4 in "Six Steps to Make Your Children's Story Sparkle" by Laura Backes
"4 Keys to Writing Un-put-downable Middle Grade Adventure" by Richard Ungar
"The 3 golden rules of writing a young adult novel" by Robert Wood