"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too Much Description?

One of my followers had a question: At what point does description become too much?

It is definitely a balancing act when determining how much description one needs or should include. I try to intersperse description throughout a scene and prefer to only use a few paragraphs at a time before breaking it up. Also, if your description has some element of "action" (as in the examples for the sense of sight), the reader will cruise through it without being bogged down. But, again, you have to use your instincts to find the appropriate place so it won't sound as if you just threw it in there, and also so it won't slow the action. Pacing is important, as is rhythm. Fiction, like poetry, has a rhythm.

A friend of mine used to say that "not all our words are pearls." This is something we need to remember and be heavy with the edit. Only include what is necessary to the scene and to the story, and tighten it as much as possible, choosing one strong word that will replace several weak words. Nowadays, readers won't tolerate lengthy descriptions. We live in a fast-paced world and they want their fiction fast-paced as well. As for Tolkien, I don't read much fantasy, but the genre is about "world building" and therefore lengthier descriptions are not only accepted, but expected.


Litgirl01 said...

So true about this being a fast-paced society! Most people would rather watch a movie than read a book. Ugh!

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Tightening is something I really need to work on.

Lady Glamis said...

This is some great advice. I love to write poetry, and feel that learning how to write it well has taught me how to pace my prose better that I could otherwise. So that line you put about fiction having rhythm like poetry rings true for me.

We've had a similar discussion about description over at The Literary Lab - mainly about putting description into the action. I think that it certainly almost always works out better when you try do that.

"Not all of our words are pearls" is a fantastic piece of advice. This can vary depending from piece to piece but too much description in anything can really hinder the writing.

elizabeth crook said...

Linda, hello. I came across your blog a few months ago when you said some kind words about one of my books. Noodling around this morning I noticed your post about "too much description". I'm being presumptuous enough to pass along some suggestions I learned the hard way.They're in an article called I put together called "Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction". Several of the rules deal with the tricky problem of overwriting. The article is posted on my website, elizabethcrookbooks.com , if anyone is interested. I feel a little squeemish about suggesting my own tips, but students in lecture seminars tell me they're helpful. They come from years of editing my own extraneous prose. Take care,congratulations on all your books!
Elizabeth Crook

Linda Sandifer said...

Very good to hear from you, Elizabeth. I really loved "The Night Journal." And thanks for passing along the information about your rules that deal with overwriting. I think that no matter how long we've been writing, it never hurts to get more input and different ideas and perspectives from other writers. I'll look forward to reading it. Thanks!

Avril said...

I feel this is somehting I am learning the hard way, maybe the only way, through continuing to write. Although I was fortunate in getting my first book published I know it suffers from over writing - its so hard to resist when you start out. I think then you do believe your words are like pearls. Now I am cultivating the idea that more is less and I agree with L Glamis that poetry can teach us alot in this respect

Huriya said...

Great tip, when reading other's writing with a lot of description I tend to skip it unless it is truly captivating. But in your own writing it is hard to find the balance.

Website Content Writing said...

Description is often what readers will see first before deciding if they want to read any further so it needs to be written well.