How much description is too much?

“God is in the details”.  This phrase is used so much, that it has crossed into the realm of clichés.  While I’ve heard this phrase uttered for industries from maid service to politics, in writing, those details can go too far.  Of course, how much description is too much?

When Charles Dickens was still alive, and writing, critics said that he over described everything and the only thing anyone would ever get out of the writing is a good night sleep.  Now we read his books and get an insight into the England of the past, a very different landscape where workhouses were cruel to the orphans who lived in them.

Description is a writer’s tool to draw people into the world from their point of view.  It is a tool to establish character, and setting, but there are ways it can go too far.  Here are three.

The first is obvious description.  Obvious description is the type that leaves people saying “duh” and putting the book down.  Things like “The sky above me”, “The ground below me”, don’t laugh, I’ve actually read these in published books.  I just gave those books to goodwill, without finishing them.  It’s a desperate attempt to make a word count without having to use your creativity.  In a novel 80,000 words or more, the occasional slipup is forgivable, but when the writer uses them throughout the novel, I have to wonder if there is any talent behind the words.

The second is describing something that has nothing to do with what you’re writing.  If you’re writing a romance in Maine, you don’t want to describe a dog running through a field in India.  It may seem abstract, and poetic, but to readers it’s annoying and they’ll never make it past the first page.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for using abstract and poetic material in books, after all, Shakespeare did it all the time, but you need to make sure it’s relevant to the story.

The third way description can go too far is when it would be better shown than told.  When people don’t have something to reference, tell us about it.  A good example of this would be an historical novel about a king.  You wouldn’t describe a fifth century palace by showing us a shopping mall.  You would tell us about the rooms and corridors.  On the other hand, if you are describing a shopping mall you can have your character walk past an Orange Julius, or The Gap, and most everyone would know what you’re talking about without lengthy exposition.

While writing consider carefully the way you describe your subject, or setting. Just remember the saying, “a place for everything, and everything in its place”; this is the thing to think about when deciding between show and tell.

Challenge:  If you come across a part when you don’t know whether you should “show” or “tell”, try writing it in different ways, and see which method draws you in more.


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16 Responses to “How much description is too much?”

  1. LifeBunny Says:

    Your blog makes me think of writers of old, such as Alexandre Dumas, who wrote scads of description into his novels because he was being paid by the word.

    I understand there are still publishers out there who pay by the word. One would hope they aren’t contacted by anyone like Mssr. Dumas.

    • apb148 Says:

      I’ve never been a big fan of mandatory word count. It’s easy to either leave important information out, or put too much in. Strange enough, I do well with deadlines, just not word counts.
      Thank you for your comment.

  2. cruizen4u (Cindy) Says:

    It is so true about over describing and knowing when your writing is showing or telling. I am now going over my writing in the finished manuscript and ever so carefully watching what I do with the two I have yet to finish.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this subject. Especially helpful to me as a new writer.

    • apb148 Says:

      It is a struggle that I face all the time. In editing I spend more time on this than anything else. Of course there is no description check on the word processor.
      Thank you for the comment.

  3. Sandie Hudson Says:

    Very interesting post, well written . I know that I have a big problem with over describing at times, editing time can be hell for me. LOL.


    • apb148 Says:

      Sandie, thank you for the comment. I think it’s a problem for everyone who writes. I take a while in editing just looking for these problems.


  4. Kelly Boyer Sagert Says:

    I never could get through Moby Dick because I just couldn’t take in all those descriptions about knots, whaling and so forth.

    • apb148 Says:

      Kelly, I know what you mean. I found the same problem with the book “the Perfect Storm”. I struggled through the first 10 pages, before giving up. I liked the movie though.
      Thank you for the comment.

  5. gigi1953 Says:

    Ah! Good post on a subject that concerns me right now, Allen! A universal problem for writers! Excellent blog!

  6. Tamara Hughes Says:

    Great blog, Allen. I’m always catching myself with the standing up type of thing. Otherwise, I’m a minimalist when it comes to description, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

    • apb148 Says:

      Thank you for the comment Tamara, My favorite blunder was my description of a character’s two eyes.

  7. Neko Kin Says:

    All very well said! It does seem that long descriptive passages were the vogue in Dickens time, at least for him. He spent a page, maybe more, describing a market place in “A Christmas Carol”! I love settings and this is something I’m going to have to be attentive to in my writing.

    Thank you again for such good advice 🙂

    Neko Kin

    • apb148 Says:

      I still feel lengthy exposition can have its place as long as it stays appropriate to the story.
      Thank you for the comment.

  8. Dal Jeanis Says:

    While the words “above me” might seem redundant when applied to “sky”, they really aren’t. They affect how the reader relates to the statement, reminding the reader that the narrator is in the picture as well. They also affect the cadence and the rhythm of the sentence (most of which you deleted from your example.

    Deleting every word that isn’t critical is an editorial fad that needn’t be obeyed blindly. Words have other functions than merely conveying information and demonstrating “originality”.

    • apb148 Says:

      Thank you for the comment. I understand your point, and don’t disagree. In any art, whether writing, photography, or even music. There are both rules, and exceptions. My examples were there to make a point only, and have no power above that. I’ve seen both of these used to some effect in other writings.

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