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Saturday, July 04, 2009

When is description too much?

Words For Writers asked a damned good question a couple months back and I've been meaning to address it here. When is description too much?

The simple answer: when it goes on for more than a page. But we're not here for simple answers.
Some fiction writers deem it necessary to babble endlessly about one piece of scenery, or a character, or a piece of furniture, and doing so is, quite frankly, annoying and boring. No matter how good your description is, if it detracts from the story, it's too much. That's not to say that a good chunk of description can't work; it can, but only if it is good, and if it keeps the story interesting. Most likely your readers are not going to sit through a page of prose describing a chair.

Here are some good ways to know when description is too much:
  • Reading your description sections makes you forget what the point of that section was.
  • Reading your description sections makes you forget what was happening just prior (or makes you forget the story in general).
  • It goes on forever and ever, dragging your character and narrative away from what is supposed to be going on (i.e. the plot). In the event that you're writing a story that doesn't really have a plot, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, then description becomes overbearing if the characters get loses to the reader (or to you).
  • Your description drags the story down.
But, description is an important element, one which deserves careful attention. Well-written description invokes something akin to a hallucination. Readers can imagine the scene as if it were real, as if they are actually there, experiencing it through the character's mind. Fiction is an escape from the real world, or at least the world we currently occupy. Making your description about something more than just telling us the basics can add flare to the world you're dealing with, to the characters, objects, and scenes you're attempting to convey or use. Sometimes you need a lot of description to accurately convey these things. Don't sell yourself short.


Other opinions welcome. Feel free to leave a comment!

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  1. I know when its too much description when it goes on for three pages about a blade of grass (for example)

  2. That's my position, for sure. We don't need 3-page discussion about grass :P.

  3. Great thoughts. I love lots of description, but as you note it needs to be description that serves the story.

    As a writer, I reread my beloved trunk novel (and keep meaning to fix it some day) and find how much in luuurv with extended and needless description I was. If I were designing sets for "Trunk Novel: The Movie" that would be great stuff; but as part of the book it's god awful!

    I particularly like "Reading your description sections makes you forget what the point of that section was."

  4. writtenwyrdd: Yeah, I apparently have a problem with favoring description over other aspects of storytelling.