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Novel Writing: How Much Description Do You Like?

Description in Your Novel: All or Nothing or Somewhere in Between: Where Do You Stand?

Do you enjoy reading long passages of in-depth description of settings and character? Do you hate being bogged down with too much description? How much is too much? How little is not enough? It's a confusing issue, especially for newer writers. Experts, agents, publishers, and published authors seem to have conflicting opinions on the subject.

 Many writers believe that you shouldn't go into too much detail in your narrative. They find it boring. I've read just about every book on the craft of writing and I've read conflicting advice on this topic. Some writer's and readers don't even like for the author to provide a physical description of  the main characters in the novel. They like to form their own picture, in their mind of what the character looks like. I've read books and blog post (No- I cannot think of the particular authors right now) by writers who are disappointed when the character's description contradicts the image they have already conjured up in their mind.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find experts, like novelist and professional book doctor, Jeff Gerke, author of The First 50 Pages, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, and Plot Versus Character. There are many more professionals who share Gerke's view on the description issue, but he is the one who came to mind as I began writing this blog post.

In his book The First 50 Pages, Gerke discusses the school of thought that says the author should never describe anything or anyone. "Let the readers see my places as he will," and I will never dictate anything to the reader, is the motto of this school of thought. Gerke, quickly points out that he is not of this school. His opinion is that the choice not to describe, is better attributed to simple laziness than to artistic individualism and the let it be notion. Gerke quits reading a book, after page one, if he cannot picture the people and the places.

I read all genres, but I'm partial to mystery/suspense, thriller, legal thrillers, and other crime fiction and I don't find as much description in these genres as in the chick-lit, YA, and other books that I read. I suppose it's because, thriller writers concentrate more on action.  I love action, but too much action is a turn off for me. I'm not into speeding car chase after car chase...after car chase. I need a breather; I need to come up for air.  

I fall somewhere in the middle of the two schools of thought. I need to be grounded in the book that I am reading, and that requires some description. I admit, however, that I am not a fan of long, flowery prose and I really don't like description overkill. 

I read a book last summer (I am not going to give the title or name the author, because, It was clearly not my favorite read), but it was a legal thriller and the author is considered a celebrity of sorts. I was boggled down with the author's description of the character's clothing and her lavish meals. At times, I felt like I was reading a travel guide, highlighting the eating and drinking hotspots of L.A. Other times, I was certain, I had picked up a copy of Vogue or a Neiman Marcus catalog.

 Every time the protagonist changed clothes (which was often), the reader was given a detailed description of the clothing, the name brand, store that said outfit was purchased from and how exceptional the beautiful protagonist looked in the alluring, sensible, casual, or- just-for-fun attire. 

Likewise, every time the main character enjoyed a meal or cocktail, the reader was given an overly detailed description of the bar or restaurant, from the outside landscaping, bushes, flower beds, type of concrete walkway- to the interior colors, ambiance, bar stools, decor, paintings on the wall, the gold piping on the cobalt and ecru colored dinner plates to a run down of the entire menu, including the twenty or so appetizers, salads, entrees and deserts that she contemplated.

Whew! I had to come up for air, just thinking about those long, descriptive passages that the author drowned me (and the story) in.

For me, it was way, way, way too much information. It did not advance the plot. You know the kind: Full of double, triple adjectives and adverbs. The specific color red of her lipstick, the exact pink hue of her pumps.

I recognize that I am in the minority, when it comes to reading descriptive passages, but I tend to skip over large chunks of block text that does nothing but describe a person, place or event that is not pertinent to the story and is not necessary to move the story forward. I want the writer to give me a physical description of the main characters, but I am not going to quit reading on page one, if they have not done so. I much prefer getting to know the characters in the books I read, by their actions and dialogue. I can form a vivid image of a hunky hero or a bitchy main character, by the way he or she acts, reacts, treats others, speaks to others, and how other characters view him or her.

Before writing this blog post, I re-read certain parts of my favorite novels to find what I like best about how the authors managed the issue of too much vs. not enough description, and this is what I discovered.

1. Great authors manage to slip description in without me recognizing it as a descriptive passage. They find ways to blend it into the story.

2.Use all five senses for description. Smell and touch are often overlooked, but both convey more with less.

3. Pain, balance and weather are are effective conduits of description

4. I like when an author uses movement as a method of setting description, by letting the setting unfold, little by little as the character moves through the scene.


Denise Robbins, wrote a good article about description, a while back, but I found it very informative and useful. Here is an excerpt, from her blog post, Description in Fiction that really brought it home for me:

A good, effective description evokes a vivid picture, drawing the reader into the story by allowing him/her to experience it through sensory detail, yet leaves the interpretation open enough so that if you ask any two readers what they "see," they will tell you something different. A well-written description moves the story along and adds to characterization.
Notice that last sentence. Description is not meant to be “filler”. Good description moves the story along. Remember, you do not want to bore the reader.

Too much or too little? It's all in the eye of the reader. Where do you stand? Do you enjoy detailed description when you read or do you prefer the bare bones minimum, just enough to orient you to the story? Somewhere in between? What about when you write? Do you use a little, a lot or somewhere in between? Do you have any suggestions or tips to offer for writing effective description?


Melissa Sugar said...

I've certainly read examples of both good concise description and engaging long description. The difference, I think, it that it's a lot easier to write bad description when you go long. That feeling where you're reading and you can see it and you feel like you're there, totally immersed page after page, is great if you can do it, but not many people can.

Learning how the good writers can do it is something that isn't easy to work out, but when readers don't like long description it usually isn't because they have a bias, more likely, I think, the writing lacks something in that particular moment

Moody Writing

Melissa Sugar said...

That book with the heavy clothing and food descriptions is the kind that will bore me to death. I remember reading a fantasy novel where the author spent a whole page describing a character's dress - and not only was that character never heard from again, there was no point to the description.

I like some description, but a line or two is usually enough. I prefer to form my own images.

Melissa Sugar said...

Personally, my eyes glaze over with too much description. For books like To Kill a Mockingbird, I bought it on CD. Its a wonderful story, but not for reading to me.

I write with descriptions sparingly, giving just enough. I hope.

Hugs and chocolate,

Melissa Sugar said...

I totally agree with Alex here.

Melissa Sugar said...

Moderation in all things. I think you hit on they keys, the description has to be sprinkled into the action and in proportion to what we need to know. I've read books where little description was too much because it was done with a very heavy hand and I've read books with huge amounts of description that was a delight to read.

Melissa Sugar said...

I'm with you. I'll skip over large amounts of text when I can see it's just details. I remember one series I read, and one book was ONLY character introduction. It was PAINFUL but i was scared to skip the entire book for miss of something important. I don't think there was one thing. I like the show don't tell as well, but it's something I struggle with. Everyonce in a while I find myself slipping into that spot easily without it sounding flowery or too much.

Melissa Sugar said...

I can tell you simply (as a reader of books) that I need just enough description to get my own creative juices going. I can imagine quite well on my own and it usually helps to cement the story more vividly in my head. That last book you mention with the excessive description would make me want to choke the author. the gift card!!! Thanks, I'll be shopping soon.

Melissa Sugar said...

I think it depends on the genre and the writer's style. In books like the Sookie Stackhouse series, I LOVE all the description because it really adds to the langorous feel of the books- like I'm in the Louisiana bayous, picking out what to wear to a dangerous rendezvous right along side her. But it has to be well done.

Melissa Sugar said...

I love those books, especially when they refer to actual places by name in Louisiana. I'm from La.

Melissa Sugar said...

I agree.

Melissa Sugar said...

You are welcome. Thanks for being such a loyal visitor to my blog. I did want to strangle the author. I only finished the book, because of the author's semi-celebrity status. I did not purchase her second book.

Melissa Sugar said...

I hate it when the the flowery description goes on and on.

Melissa Sugar said...

Well put.

Melissa Sugar said...

Same here

Melissa Sugar said...

A line or two is enough, exactly .

Melissa Sugar said...

Exactly, you nailed it.

Melissa Sugar said...

I do worry sometimes that my writing is all action and not enough character development, but I'm like you: too much description that doesn't move along the plot turns me off.

Melissa Sugar said...

yes exactly! that balance is what I look for, but it is hard to hit it some days

Melissa Sugar said...

I do worry a lot that I put too much description into my novel but I only ever do it when I feel I need it. I write it when I need to pull the reader into the story through the eyes of my main character. That is something that I miss a lo9t in novels - not being able to imagine the scene. Yes, sometimes I drag descriptions on a little too much but I know I'll probably cut those parts down when I come to edit.

My only real worry is if my descriptions are too metaphorical and fancy. A lot of the time, I just write what flows, occasionally pausing so I can scribble down some description that my instincts tell me needs to be there.

Also, I hate it when, half way through the novel, the author announces that the main character is brown when I already imagined them as blonde. I feel like I'm the one at fault when that happens. Please let me know what their basic appearance is as soon as possible.

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