One of the most difficult aspects
of description is knowing how much to put in. Too little description and the
reader is bewildered and unattached to the story. Too much and the story slows
down and the reader becomes bored. The best way to discover the thin line
between under and over-description is to be very attentive when you read the
type of book you want to write.The reader’s of literary fiction will have different expectations and
inclinations than the reader’s of action books.
So while reading make a mental
note of how much description of character and setting occurs. Ask yourself what
each detail adds to the story, or in some cases, takes away. Remember, just
because the book has been published doesn’t mean it has gotten it all right.
There are many published books with poor description, too much description or
There are some types of description
that you can almost always eliminate. Beginning writers often list their
character’s clothing like an announcer at a runway fashion show; Jennie is
wearing a tapered spring cardigan, a baby blue pleated blouse and… Unless the
piece of clothing defines your character in some way (a woman who wears
sunglasses all the time, even inside), you don’t need to describe it. Readers
are perfectly capable of dressing your characters in appropriate clothing.
Another type of description to
watch out for is the physical description that replaces characterization. For
example, the only reason that you would need to talk about Sam’s “intelligent blue
eyes” is that you have not shown the reader that Sam is intelligent. Cut the
intelligent blue eyes and give us a dialogue between Sam and another character
that shows us his intelligence in action.
When you are deciding which details
to include you want to focus on concrete details that really make the setting
or person come alive. One good way to discover these details is to think about
a real place and visualize the first five things that come to mind. For
example, if I imagine my favorite coffee shop, I immediately think about the
Indie music that is always playing, the dogs that run around inside, the sugar
sweet smile of the guy who works behind the counter, the smell of steam and
espresso, and the long row of dingy couches.
It is important that the majority
of your description of setting and character is based on physical details and
not abstract ideas. Let’s look at a sentence from Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The main character describes a room
saying, “Her house is expensively and confusedly furnished; each room seems to
have one more chair than necessary.” The first part of the sentence is abstract
and the second part is concrete. The majority of your description should be
Whenever you enter a building,
store or restaurant for the first time, take note of the first five things you
notice. Most likely, these will be specific and concrete objects, smells and
sounds. These are the telling details you would want to include.