Writers must strike the right balance between rich details that will immerse readers in the story and excessive descriptions that will put the audience to sleep. Overwritten prose can weigh readers down with too much verbiage. Underwritten prose might not allow the reader to fully visualize and experience the story.
Most writers lean more one way than the other, but your style might vary depending on the type of information you’re trying to convey or your intentions for a particular project. You might tend to overwrite setting descriptions and underwrite dialogue, or vice versa. The key is being able to identify when you have too little or too much.
Fixing problems with underwriting and overwriting isn’t about stifling your voice to make you sound prepackaged; it’s about letting readers know they’re in the hands of a capable storyteller.
Say that a story opens with a scene of a daughter confronting her father about a letter she found. Here’s an underwritten version of that scene:
Fiona stormed into the room. Hector looked up at his daughter from his desk.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“You never told me about the letter.”
He froze. “I…I don’t know about any letter.”
“You just don’t want me to be happy! You hate me. You always have, because I’m not your real daughter.”
Fiona started crying, and Hector consoled her until the tears had dried. He offered to make her some hot chocolate, but that only seemed to make things worse. He didn’t know what to do. He had lied about the letter, and it was clear Fiona knew that.
This is obviously a bare bones draft. It’s mostly dialogue, and several key details are missing that would be important to know for the opening of a story:
- We don’t have a clear picture of the setting
- We don’t know the daughter’s age (our interpretation of the scene might change depending on whether Fiona is six, sixteen, or twenty-six)
- We also have a paragraph that should be part of the scene instead of described in summary — it’s telling instead of showing
- There’s really not much flavor in terms of imagery, atmosphere, or emotion (the writing doesn’t make me feel anything)
Sometimes writers forget to take their time with important moments — everything happens too quickly, and the reader doesn’t get to witness the events unfold in real time. The characters are talking heads, lacking the descriptive details that would paint them as unique individuals living in a real world. As a result, they feel like cardboard cutouts.
For underwritten scenes, it can be useful to revise with a sensory mindset, particularly visuals. Picture everything as it happens.
- If you were experiencing this moment yourself, what imagery would seem most interesting or important?
- What smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile sensations would you notice?
- How do those change the mood?
- What might those details reveal about the people involved?
For this scene, I might filter it entirely through Fiona’s perspective. I could add a sensory detail, like a smell, to transport the reader into the moment:
Fiona stormed into her father’s study. As always, he sat at his ugly mahogany desk, smoking a cigar, the stench further fueling her anger.
Adding sensory details like this usually inspires deeper characterization. Now we know that Hector smokes cigars, which might hint at what type of man he is. Since the scene is filtered through Fiona’s perspective, we can see her label his desk as “ugly” and the cigar smell as a “stench,” word choices that underscore her dislike toward her father.
Sometimes the scene isn’t lacking sensory details but rather character emotion and thought.
You can add a few internal reactions to deepen the characterization and thus help the reader feel more invested in the story. The better we understand someone and sympathize with their feelings, the more we care about what happens to them.
These emotions might come in the form of body language:
Fiona slapped a white envelope on his desk and crossed her arms. “You never told me about the letter.”
Instead of body language, memories or background information could show the relationship dynamics.
“You just don’t want me to be happy,” Fiona whispered. A vivid image flashed through her head, of her fists pounding on the basement door, her own childlike voice crying out in the near-darkness.
Hector stood from his chair and clapped a hand on her shoulder. She turned her gaze toward the floor but didn’t pull away. “You know that’s not true, Fiona. I want you to be safe. To make the right choices.”
Remember that sensory details, actions, emotions, and thoughts all enrich the reading experience by making the story feel three-dimensional.
Now, you don’t want to overcorrect and add too much in. That’s how you end up with an overwritten version of this scene, like this:
Fiona stormed into her father’s study. As always, he sat at his ugly mahogany desk with its stacks of cluttered papers and shiny trinkets from Thailand and Japan and wherever else his greedy investment business had spread like a plague. He was smoking a fat cigar, the pungent stench further fueling her anger, like kindling to a fire. He looked up at her, his brown eyes widening in complete shock and surprise, clearly not expecting to see her there. She wasn’t normally permitted in his study, and she resented him all the more for that. She wasn’t a child anymore; she was nearly seventeen now, and yet he seemed to think she needed rules and curfews, all designed to pin her under his authoritarian thumb.
Fiona strode forward and slapped a white envelope on his desk, crossing her arms. “You never told me about this letter. Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you keep this from me? I can’t believe you’d lie like that.”
He froze like a deer in headlights, stuttering out a response. “I…I don’t know about any letter. If I had, I would’ve told you, I swear it, darling. There’s no need to be so upset. I would never have done that to you.”
“You just don’t want me to be happy,” Fiona whispered. “You hate me. I can see it in the way you look at me. You always act like I’m some bug you want to step on. I know it’s because I’m not your real daughter. I’m just a foster kid. A stray you took in because you felt sorry for me. But guess what? You don’t get to dictate my life.”
Hot tears spilled over her cheeks and dripped down her neck, into her cream-colored blouse. Fury bubbled in her chest, her throat constricting, her heart pounding with pure rage, threatening to erupt in the form of a blazing tirade. Oh, how she wanted to give him a piece of her mind, to make him understand how badly he had hurt her across the years, how much he had so cruelly and terribly limited her freedom. She remembered how he had locked her in the basement when she was ten years old and turned off all the lights, ignoring the sound of her fists banging on the door. All that torture because she had deigned to kiss the butcher’s son on the cheek after he had given her a free piece of honey ham, and her father thought such a dirty peasant to be beneath his daughter. By kissing someone so lowly, she had tarnished the family name — that’s what he thought, anyway.
Certain aspects of the writing style drag down the pacing and could potentially bore the reader:
- The descriptions are long-winded and filled with more detail than needed to picture the scene
- The characters are monologuing, speaking at length without pausing to wait for a response and without being interrupted, which doesn’t feel realistic in this type of argument (a typical conversation has a back-and-forth rhythm)
- Toward the end, we’re stuck inside the character’s thoughts for one dense paragraph, putting the action on pause
Overwriting likely stems from a desire to capture everything in a lifelike rendering and ensure the reader is clearly picturing the scene and experiencing the characters’ emotions. But this level of detail and repetition can actually detract from clarity by leaving the reader unsure of what to take away from the scene. If you describe at length the paintings on the wall, the desk, the carpeting, the curtains, and the furnishing, I might be able to picture the setting, but it would be a slog to read through.
A scene where EVERYTHING is in focus is the same as a scene where NOTHING is in focus.
Think of your writing as a camera lens: you need to decide what is in the foreground (i.e., the most important or interesting element that is focused on in detail) and what is in the background (i.e., what is not as important and so requires less detail).
You could describe the furniture in less detail as a background feature, then pull a single object into the foreground to focus on in more detail — say, a portrait on the wall. You’re telling the reader, “Pay attention, this is interesting.” You’re hinting at the detail’s significance to the characters — what it says about them, what it reveals about the story world, what narrative questions it creates.
- A portrait on a wall could show that an ugly old man was once handsome, mirroring how the optimism of his youth has faded into pessimism
- It could reveal that, in this story world, everyone has a portrait of their Dear Leader on the wall
- It could make the reader ask, “Who is the woman in this portrait?” or “Why does this dude have a creepy painting of a lion attacking a horse?”
Avoid the temptation to overexplain; instead, let the details speak for themselves.
Overwriting can also be annoying because it’s as if the writer assumes the reader won’t understand their meaning if they don’t emphasize it enough, to the point where the reader will want to shout, “All right, I get it! Fiona is really angry!” Readers are most engaged when they’re given clues rather than answers — when they’re shown the evidence rather than told the conclusion.
With overwritten scenes, go through each sentence and determine what new information the reader is receiving. Oftentimes, you’ll find sentences or phrases that essentially say the same thing.
Take this sentence:
“He was smoking a fat cigar, the pungent stench further fueling her anger, like kindling to a fire.”
Well, “stench” means “a strong and very unpleasant smell,” so “pungent” feels redundant because we already know the smell is “intense.” Likewise, the reader is told that the smell is “fueling her anger,” and the simile “like kindling to a fire” conveys that same idea, so it’s not strictly necessary. Plus, it’s a bit of a cliché, as is “He froze like a deer in headlights.” Look out for those clichéd expressions, especially if you tend to overwrite on a sentence level.
You can do the same repetition test with dialogue and internal thought. Fiona says:
“You never told me about this letter. Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you keep this from me? I can’t believe you’d lie like that.”
She uses four similar sentences to express her indignation over her father keeping this letter a secret. This might be realistic in some cases, but the repetition of ideas makes for boring dialogue.
Here, it could be shortened to “Why didn’t you tell me about this letter?” If you wanted to add extra emphasis, it could be followed by “Why did you keep this from me?” Or if you wanted to put the focus on Fiona taking particular offense to him lying, it could be shortened to “Why didn’t you tell me about this letter? You lied to me.”
If two sentences or paragraphs express the same idea, cut one of them.
Choose your details carefully. Think of what information or impression you want your reader to take away from each paragraph, and question how many words you need to achieve that.
Now, how about a draft of this scene that feels more balanced?
Fiona swung open the door to her father’s study, brandishing a white envelope. Her father looked up from his desk. A cigar dangled from his mouth, and its stench fueled her anger.
“You’re up early,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
She slapped the envelope on his desk and crossed her arms. “Why didn’t you tell me about this letter?”
“Letter? From whom?” He lowered his cigar and appraised the torn-open envelope. “This is the first time I’ve seen it.”
Fiona fought the urge to tear the cigar from his mouth and throw it across the room. It would’ve been so satisfying to ruin his prized French loveseat in the process. She’d always hated this room, with its gaudy golden statues of philosophers and overlarge mahogany furniture, all designed to manipulate guests into believing Hector Reinhard was a noble and sophisticated man.
“You’re lying,” she spat, and her father flinched. “I know you saw the letter because I found it in your dresser drawer.”
“You shouldn’t have been in my bedroom.” His admonishing expression was that of a parent grounding a child, as if she were seven instead of seventeen.
“That’s not an answer.” Blood thundered in her head. She’d never felt this volume of rage, not even when he’d put down her Pomeranian for “yapping,” not even when he’d called her birth mother “a disgusting slut.”
Fiona hadn’t imagined those memories could be trumped, but this? This was unforgivable.
This scene is 239 words. The underwritten draft was 101 words, and the overwritten draft was 441 words. It’s not a perfect draft, but I’ve tried to include more setting details and to characterize both Fiona and Hector in terms of their ages and personalities.
I wanted to show what their relationship has been like prior to this point, since that information changes how we interpret this scene, putting us firmly on Fiona’s side of the argument; even though we don’t yet know the story behind the letter, Fiona’s commentary suggests that Hector is the jerk here. I also wanted to create a sense of intrigue about the letter’s contents — what could be worse than insulting Fiona’s birth mother or killing her dog?
While Fiona is always shown to be angry and upset, Hector’s reactions have morphed across the three versions.
- In the underwritten version, Hector seems kinder and more conciliatory, almost endearing
- In the overwritten draft, he’s less genuine, but he still wants to comfort his daughter
- This third version shows a much crueler Hector with an obviously toxic father-daughter relationship; so, he’s gone from possibly sympathetic to straight-up villain across these drafts
That transformation just goes to show that how you phrase the details and dialogue can dramatically impact how readers feel about the characters.
Keep in mind that your style doesn’t need to stay in the Goldilocks Zone. Plenty of writers lean toward more economical styles, and others toward lush descriptions.
You’ve probably read at least one book that bored you to tears because the writing style felt too plain or one that aggravated you with the complexity of its prose. Sometimes, you’ll stumble across writing that’s technically proficient, but it’s just not for you. And that’s okay. We’re all different people with different tastes, in both reading and writing.
Still, it’s important to articulate why a style works or doesn’t work for you, because that awareness will help you when you’re editing your own writing.
Smooth Prose in a Published Novel
In Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, the writing flows. This is one of the opening scenes:
The three of them sat on the car’s roof in order, as they had in all the family portraits that had once hung in the stairwell and were now reduced to ash. Lexie, Trip, Moody: senior, junior, sophomore. Beside them they felt the hole that Izzy, the freshman, the black sheep, the wild card, had left behind — though they were still certain, all of them, that this hole would be temporary.
“What was she thinking?” Moody muttered, and Lexie said, “Even she knows she’s gone too far this time, that’s why she ran off. When she comes back, Mom is going to murder her.”
“Where are we going to stay?” Trip asked. A moment of silence unreeled as they contemplated their situation.
“We’ll get a hotel room or something,” said Lexie finally. “I think that’s what Josh Trammell’s family did.” Everyone knew this story: how a few years ago Josh Trammell, a sophomore, had fallen asleep with a candle lit and burned his parents’ house down. The long-standing rumor at the high school was that it wasn’t a candle, it was a joint, but the house had been so thoroughly gutted there was no way to tell, and Josh had stuck to his candle story. Everyone still thought of him as that dumbass jock who burned the house down, even though that had been ages ago, and Josh had recently graduated from Ohio State with honors. Now, of course, Josh Trammell’s fire would no longer be the most famous fire in Shaker Heights.
No matter how you feel about the book as a whole, it’s hard to argue that Celeste Ng is a bad writer in terms of sentence-by-sentence construction. Many readers call Little Fires Everywhere “beautifully written”:
- “The story is brilliantly told, Ng’s bright prose glowing with warmth and wisdom.”
- “Ng’s prose flowed with such fierce and understated intelligence that I felt immersed in her world from the very first page.”
- “This book was so darn well-written! Just the right amount of detail without being overwritten.”
And even reviewers who disliked the story felt the writing was good.
You don’t need to have “beautiful” prose to be a good writer.
A simple and accessible style can immerse readers just as much as an embellished and multi-layered one. Find what you like and admire in a writing style, then polish your prose until your readers feel what you want them to feel.
Don’t worry about underwriting or overwriting when you’re squeezing out the words.
Your first draft is allowed to suck. As the saying goes, “Write without fear; edit without mercy.” Take time between drafts, even if it’s just an hour, but preferably a few days or weeks. Waiting a few months is great when it comes to editing, because you’re less emotionally attached to your ideas and the words feel less familiar, enabling you to objectively notice flaws in the writing.
Sometimes it’s frustrating when celebrated authors like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin get away with dense paragraph after dense paragraph, yet newer writers are skewered for writing in similar detail. That’s why feedback from a variety of readers is so important. All readers have different tastes, but if three people who write or read in your genre point out the same problems in your writing, then you need to take that advice to heart if you want other readers to enjoy your work. Self-editing is hard because we all have blind spots, so other writers can teach us novel ways to refine our craft.
As a writing exercise, intentionally underwrite or overwrite a scene.
Analyze what makes it “bad” writing, and figure out how to fix the mess you’ve made.
Are you more of an underwriter or an overwriter? How do you fix these problems? Tell me all about it in a comment.
Whatever you do, keep writing.
This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!
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