Sooner or later, most writers will get their hands slapped over description, whether it’s too much description or too little.
The bad news is that this is a big deal in narrative fiction. Get the balance of your description wrong, and it could throw off your entire story.
The good news is that once you understand how to examine and execute your descriptions, you will have taken your writing to the next level.
I’ve talked previously about the problems of too little (or, worse, no) description. Today, we’re going to examine what is perhaps the even more egregious side of this dilemma: too much description.
2 Reasons Readers Hate Too Much Description
While some authors may err too far on the other side and leave the entire visual world of their stories to their subtext, others among us might err too far in the opposite direction.
Not only do we give readers the descriptive details they need, we belabor the point by telling them every little last detail—about the way every cranny of a setting looks, and not only how it looks today, but how it looked in years past and maybe even how it’s going to look in the future.
The problem here is twofold:
1. Lengthy descriptions are almost inevitably boring.
2. They’re boring because they do not matter.
Readers are very trusting and obliging people. They will follow you anywhere and listen to anything you have to say as long as there’s a point. This is true of the story in general, each scene within that story, right on down to every word choice.
He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much.
This holds true in storytelling as well. If you’re reading a book and the author can’t prove himself in something so small as the word choices in his descriptions, then it’s highly unlikely he’s going to offer mastery in the bigger-picture areas of structure, arc, and theme.
Why Too Much Description Actually Pushes Readers Out of Your Story
The reason readers instinctively understand too much description is problematic is because it signals a deeper issue within the framework of the story. Namely, too much description saps the story of subtext.
Authors must find the perfect balance of telling readers just enough for the story to make sense and come to life, without sharing so much that readers are crowded right out of the story. Our goal as storytellers should be to create a partnership between our own imaginations and that of our readers’. If we’re describing every little detail—both pertinent and not—what we’re creating instead is an on-the-nose narrative that has literally been described to death.
Why You Might Be Accidentally Using Too Much Description
There are generally three reasons an author might slip into the trap of using too much description.
1. You Aren’t Trusting Readers to “Get” It
Authors often get nervous about their abilities. They aren’t sure they’ve chosen the right quantity or quality of “telling” details to bring the scene to life for readers. So they pile on more descriptors and still more.
Overwriting is just fine in the beginning. In fact, sometimes it’s helpful to purposefully overwrite to help you dig deep and find the best descriptors. But you must be wise enough and brave enough to pare back descriptions to their essence. When in doubt, pare it back as much as you dare, then bring in an objective reader to tell you if everything still makes sense.
2. You Love Your Story Details Too Much
Nobody is ever going to love your story more than you do. You love everything about it. You love the very specific pattern of wear on your protagonist’s bedroom carpet. You love your sidekick’s freckles so much you’ve counted every last one of them. You love your heroine’s opulent, gorgeous, and very expansive wardrobe. Naturally, you want to share every one of these awesomesauce details with readers, because of course they’re going to find them just as awesome and fascinating as you do.
Except… they don’t. As I may have mentioned above, readers only care about stuff that matters—stuff that advances the plot, stuff that helps them understand the story and characters, stuff that fires their own imaginations without bogging things down.
As Stephen King says in On Writing:
Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.
In other words, once you decide to send your story out into the world for the enjoyment of readers, it doesn’t belong to you anymore and you must optimize its presentation to benefit them, not to indulge your own obsessive passion about ultimately irrelevant details.
3. You’re Still Growing Your Story Sensibilities
As with all of narrative storytelling, learning to create the proper balance of description is a process of experience. Even with the best of intentions, none of us ace it the first (or thirtieth) time out of the gate.
The first step in learning to refine your descriptions is to be aware they probably do need a little refining. Pay attention to them as you’re writing them, and particularly as you’re revising. Listen to their rhythm within the overall flow of the story. Question your word and detail choices. And, when all that is done, bring in reinforcements and ask others to pay special attention to anywhere they might find your descriptions growing tedious.
The 2 Most Common Areas to Look for Too Much Description
Ready to slay your unnecessary description wherever you can find it? Good. Let’s go find it!
For the most part, all descriptions fall into two categories: character description and setting description.
What Too Much Character Description Looks Like
I shook hands with the man. He had brown hair and brown eyes. He was six feet tall and skinny. He wore overalls and a brown suit coat. There were patches on the elbows and the knees. He also wore a hat with a hole in it. He had a mole beside his nose. His teeth were crooked. His sister stood beside him. She had red hair and blue eyes. She was five feet three and plump. She wore a dress and an apron, but no hat. Her teeth were also crooked.
What Just Enough Character Description Looks Like
Then Dawsey held out his hands. I had been expecting him to look like Charles Lamb, and he does, a little—he has the same even gaze. He presented me with a bouquet of carnations from Booker, who couldn’t be present; he had concussed himself during a rehearsal and was in hospital overnight for observation. Dawsey is dark and wiry, and his face has a quiet, watchful look about it—until he smiles. Saving a certain sister of yours, he has the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen, and I remembered Amelia writing that he has a rare gift for persuasion—I can believe it. Like Eben—like everyone here—he is too thin, though you can tell he was more substantial once. His hair is going grey, and he has deep-set brown eyes, so dark they look black. The lines around his eyes make him seem to be starting a smile even when he’s not, but I don’t think he’s over forty. He is only a little taller than I am and limps slightly, but he’s strong—hefted all my luggage, me, Amelia, and Kit into his wagon with no trouble. (From The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
Should You Describe Your Character’s…
In my early books, I had a serious bent for giving all my heroines a “Grecian nose.” Honestly, I still have no idea what that even is, much less what it looks like. In general, faces are just plain hard to describe. Going into the details of forehead, jaw, lips, and nose takes up a ton of space and doesn’t generally impart too much useful knowledge to readers. Much better to do as Anthony Ryan did in his fantasy Blood Song, when he had one character comment briefly but tellingly on the protagonist’s appearance:
“I’d heard you were handsome. You’re not. But your face is interesting.”
- Hair Color?
Color is arguably the most useful of all descriptors. Hair color, for all that it is not generally an important characterizing detail, is a useful visual detail. But it’s also a very small detail that should be mentioned a briefly as possible and in a way that does not jar the narrative out of its POV (see below).
- Eye Color?
Let me ask you this: Do you remember the eye color of your most recent checker at the grocery store? Me neither. In most instances, eye color is not an important visual detail. It is, however, an intimate detail. We start noticing someone’s eye color when we really start paying attention to them, seeing them as an individual rather than just another person. The eyes are the windows to the soul, which means eye color only becomes important when it aids in providing that window.
Readers rarely need to know your protagonist is 5’11.5″ inches, 170 lbs. They do, however, need have a sense of the person’s build. Tall, muscular, short, plump, attractive, average, whatever. The smallest of physical descriptors can help readers imagine the right silhouette for your character.
Sometimes clothes make the man, sometimes not. Early on in the story and in certain important scenes later on, a specific description of your characters’ clothing may be important to flesh out your world and set the stage. Otherwise, follow the rule John Dufresne offered succinctly in The Lie That Tells a Truth:
[D]ress is only important in a story when it is important to the character.
And by “important,” he doesn’t mean “the character’s favorite pair of Chucks ever,” but rather “plot-advancing.”
- Scars/Special Features?
Do they matter to the story (e.g., the character has a bionic arm that let’s her defeat bad guys)? Do they define the character (e.g., the character is deeply ashamed of his disfiguring facial birthmark)? Do they establish the setting (e.g., tribal scars in a jungle setting, or green scales in an alien setting)? Then, by all means, describe them. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?
- As Seen by Other Characters?
Perhaps the trickiest part of character description is figuring out how to describe POV characters. Your protagonist, in particular, is going to be the most important person in the story and you want to provide readers the right visual image. But you also don’t want to break POV by having the character launch into a lengthy description of herself (or, just as cringe-worthy, an observation of herself in a mirror).
The best rule of thumb is to describe only details that matter to the character and matter in the moment. However, you can also cheat just a little. When your character scratches his hand through his hair, is he really thinking about “scratching his hand through his black hair”? Nah. But he is aware that his hair is black, so you can almost always get away with sneaking that little descriptor in there. No harm, no foul—and readers have a useful detail to add to their mental image.
What Too Much Setting Description Looks Like
The man woke up. The room he was in was big, with rows and rows of beds for other patients. It was still dark, but he knew what he would see out the window: a road, then fields, then pine trees. There were a dozen windows in this room, tall ones from floor to ceiling. The curtains were white, as were the walls and the floor. Half a dozen fans dotted the ceiling. People tossed and turned in their beds. He knew all their names: Peter in the far corner, then Jim, Bob, Andrew, then him. Beyond the room was a desk for the nurse on duty, then long hallways and still more rooms, most just like this one.
What Just Enough Setting Description Looks Like
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily, he could see to the red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for a vista. The window might as well have been painted gray. (From Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier)
Should You Describe Your Setting…
- At the Beginning of the Book?
Half the trick of setting descriptions is finding the perfect place to put the details. As always, the descriptions only matter when they matter. So when do they matter? They matter when readers need to be able to envision the scene and when new details are pertinent to the events of the plot.
The former is a pretty broad umbrella, which will first come into play at the very beginning of the book. You will need to describe enough of your initial setting to orient readers within the scene and, just as important, to give them a sense of the overall story world—whether it’s Texas or Westeros.
This does not mean, however, that you need to describe every last bit of your overall setting right there at the beginning. Get readers oriented in that first scene, then start sowing additional details only as they become pertinent (for example, we have no idea what state or time Inman is in until further into the first chapter).
- At the Beginning of a Scene?
What about when you begin a new scene? You definitely do need to orient readers afresh after every scene or chapter break. But should you begin with a full-on description of the setting every time? Well, ask yourself this: is the setting the most important part of this scene?
If, yes, definitely open with it. You may even be able to go ahead and describe it in full, depending on the scope of its importance.
If not, hold back a little. Introduce the scene hook, sketch a few setting details to help readers get their boots on the ground, then slowly dole out other pertinent descriptors as they become necessary (i.e., as characters begin to interact with them).
- The Second or Third Time It’s Entered?
What about already familiar settings? Readers have already seen your teenage protagonist’s bedroom several times. Do you need to describe it afresh every time to reorient them? Nope. The only details you need for repeat scenes are the new ones. You’ve already given readers a mental image of this setting, which will remain fixed in their minds, unless and until you need to update it.
- In Detail?
What if you’ve got a huge, gorgeous, very unique setting? A mechanized city like in Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines or an antebellum cotton plantation like in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind? Half the fun of reading about these places is getting to explore them. But that doesn’t mean you can get away with pages upon pages of detailed setting description. Do share all interesting and important details with readers, but do it artfully, by sowing it into the action of the plot and the development of the character, making all the details you share matter to the story, making them mean more than just words about brick and mortar.
Learning the art of avoiding too much description is ultimately the art of controlling your narrative. When you’re able to move past description as merely description and bring it into play as a technique for advancing plot, character, and theme, through the judicious choice of telling details, you will raise the entire tenor of your book.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! As a reader, have you ever encountered a story with too much description? How did it affect your experience of the book? Tell me in the comments!
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