Enough or Too Much?

Conversations with aspiring writers. One says her beta readers complain there’s not enough detail in her descriptions. Another says her readers get bogged down in too much detail. How much is enough?

The old gag (apologizing to women, but I’m going to go there) is that the passages of description in your novel should be the same length as a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. That’s not very specific, but at least it’s clear. I suppose the real question is, how is the writer to know when there’s enough, or when there’s too much?

I can offer a few basic ideas — nothing esoteric, but possibly helpful.

Every scene should include, somewhere near the beginning, a description of the setting. Even if the scene is mostly dialog, we need to know where we are. Scene descriptions that use two (or more) senses are stronger than visuals by themselves. I feel some writers are too fond of using odors, however. An occasional odor is fine, but more often I prefer to combine visual with auditory. Do you know the time of day in the scene? How will you convey that? Do you know the air temperature? The ambient sounds coming in from the street?

When possible, replace dialog tags with “beats.” (I used to call these “stage business.” I still think that’s a better term.) Instead of this:

“I’m worried about John,” Betty said.

…try this:

Betty shook her head sadly. “I’m worried about John.”

Now you have a nice bit of visual description, efficiently added to the scene. But don’t overdo it. One beat in every three dialog paragraphs is probably plenty. Don’t have your characters constantly engaging in antics just for the sake of adding scenic information.

Avoid explaining your characters’ emotions to the reader. Show the emotions through their speech and action. If you find yourself writing a scene between Betty and John, avoid sentences such as, “Betty was angry with John.” That would be too much description.

One of the rules I read somewhere, and I really like it, is, “One plus one equals one-half.” If you find yourself writing a sentence like, “Betty shook her head sadly as she stared out the window,” you’ve used two bits of description and in the process weakened them both. Pick the stronger one and delete the other.

Don’t interrupt dialog to insert long descriptions or, worse, flashbacks. Keep up the momentum of the scene.

You’re going to hate me for saying this, but the amount of description you can get away with depends on how good a writer you are. If your descriptions are dull, readers will soon grow impatient. If your prose sparkles, a full page of description will often be not only accepted but appreciated and even admired. (Dang — I just can’t seem to stop alliterating!)

If you’re having trouble writing descriptions, possibly you haven’t visualized the scene clearly enough. What are your characters wearing? What do the distinctive elements of their clothing tell us about their circumstances? What can you tell us about the furniture in the room? These details need to add to our sense of the scene. They shouldn’t be selected at random, but I don’t have to tell you that.

My favorite tell for inadequate description is probably the phrase “two or three chairs.” If you’ve written that the room contains two or three chairs, you have not visualized it clearly. If there are ten or twelve chairs, fine — no need to count them. But any viewer of your low-budget print-only movie, or any of your characters (even, quite possibly, a blind character), can tell the difference between two chairs and three chairs. Two or three windows overlooking the garden? Same problem. Two or three throw-pillows on the divan? You can do better.

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