Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Description: How Much Is Too Much?

Without turning your head, take a quick inventory of everything that you can see right now. Then do the same for everything you can hear, smell, taste, and feel. It’s a lot, isn’t it?

At this moment, I can see myself—my shirt, my jeans, the brim of my hat, my hair hanging into my eyes, my nose, my hands, and my wedding ring. I can see my computer tower and monitors, keyboard, mouse, a mess of cables, my desk phone, cell phone, notepad, water bottle, and headphones. There’s a sticky note, a plastic cup, and a paper bowl with a plastic spoon on my desk. Beside the desk on my right is a set of shelves and drawers with my satchel on top. Beyond my desk, I can see my trashcan, three walls, a window with raised blinds, a thermostat, fire alarm, lightswitch, and a doorway into another room. For now, I won’t bother describing the other room and its contents, or the yet third room and its contents which I can see beyond that, or the group of people that just walked past me.

You get the point—that was already a lot of information, and I didn’t even go into color or visible textures of any of those things, let alone any of what I can hear, smell, feel, or taste. Plus, I’m already noticing things I didn’t think to mention in my list—the carpeted floor or the ceiling and ceiling lights, among other things.

Describing Scenes

If I were describing this scene in a story—a character sitting at a desk writing—I obviously could not describe every sight, sound, and other sense of the scene. There’s just too much. Our job as writers is to narrow down that vast list of information into just enough description for the reader to picture the scene. How much description is that? The answer depends on the scene, the genre, and your personal preferences. But the general rule of thumb is this: the proper amount of scene description is the absolute minimum amount that you can get away with.

Most writers instinctively put far more description into their story than is needed. Always try to remember: no matter how beautiful, breathtaking, or mind-blowing the scene is, description tends to be boring. Small amounts can be interesting, but any more and it becomes tedious or even purple prose. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your powers of description are so mesmerizing that you are an exception to the rule. 

Pare down your descriptions and then ask some friends to read it. If they still have a clear description of the scene, then cut it down again. Ask some new friends to read it, and keep doing this until people start to say that they can’t picture the scene. Then take it back to the last version and leave it there.

If you’re one of those somewhat rarer writers that tend to put too little description into your story, then do the reverse—add a bit of description here and there until your readers say they can picture the scene, and then go no further.

Next time, we’ll discuss some tips for fitting maximum amounts of description into the fewest possible sentences.

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