Writing Tip #16: Too Much Description & Too Little?

Published about 2 months ago • 5 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

I've started to answer questions from readers in this newsletter, and this one comes from Brenna Labine:

Any advice on toeing the line between too much visual description and the right amount of scene/character description?

Great question, Brenna!

Your question is really a question of pacing -- how can writers keep the reader's interest while simultaneously fully fleshing out the world of the book?

If you don't give enough description, the reader won't be immersed. While if you give too much, they'll get bogged down.

It's a real conundrum.

I'll give you two answers: an unhelpful answer and a helpful answer.

First, the unhelpful answer.

I give so much advice that is cut and dried.

"Try these strategies of X, Y, and Z and your book will be better."

It's much more difficult to give advice about what I call the "squishy" elements of writing, the things that don't have clear answers. Your question falls into that category.

There are many great writers that could answer your question in a wild variety of ways, and they would all be right.

So my initial (unhelpful) answer would be to rely on instinct.

By instinct, I mean your personal taste for how much description you like to READ in a book.

As writers, we're not reinventing the wheel here, we're walking in the footsteps of giants. So pick the literary author you want to emulate, and try to gauge their level of description, and imitate it.

Here's a good exercise to discover your instinct for description:

Name 3 books that fill these 3 roles:

  1. A book that gave so much description that it bored you.
  2. A book that gave so little description it frustrated you.
  3. A goldilocks book that hits the right balance.

Now usually when I run writers through this exercise, some of them struggle to find an example of either too much description or too little description.

That's excellent! It tells you which side of the spectrum that you fall on. If you can't find a book with too much description, then you're the type of author/reader who really enjoys description! (or vice versa).

That kind of knowledge about yourself is invaluable, because then you can avoid some pitfalls.

For instance:

  • If you know that you tend toward too much description, you can carefully cull the excess in revision.
  • Or if you tend toward too little description, you can buff it up in the rewriting process.

Okay, so maybe the "unhelpful" advice wasn't so unhelpful.

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Let's look at some examples of descriptions, both longer and shorter, and you can get a sense of where you want your writing to fall.

Example 1:

Now, I love Charles Dickens, but sometimes when he bogs down in descriptions of good ole England for paragraphs and paragraphs I must admit ... I end up reading *faster*.

You get paragraphs such as these (I'll only quote the beginning -- it sprawls onward for much longer):

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.

Is it beautiful writing? Yes.

Does it give you a wonderful sense of Coketown? Absolutely.

But might some modern readers end up getting bored and turning to faster paced books? Well, yes.

You have to decide what type of reader you're seeking to attract.

Example #2:

Remember, the older the book, the more chance for a lengthier description. Our attention spans have fragmented, and so modern books tend to minimize description of both characters and scenery.

Check out this description of a character in Jim Tharp's YA novel "The Spectacular Now":

"There's this kid standing out front by the pay phone. A very real-looking kid, probably only about six years old -- just wearing a hoodie and jeans, his hair sticking out every which way. Not one of these styling little kids you see in their brand-name outfits and their TV show haircuts, like they're some kind of miniature cock daddy."

That feels shorter not only because of the length, but because of the informal, jocular tone. The brevity keeps the pacing fast.

Later, in the same book, we see a description of a house:

"Anyway, I'm expecting Aimee's house to be a real shack, but it's actually a lot like the house I lived in before the era of Geech -- basically a small brick cube with a gray roof that needs new shingles and a scruffy little bare yard with no trees or shrubs or flowers or anything else ... this house doesn't have even a shot glass's worth of character to it."

The difference between Tharp's description and Dicken's is that Tharp's is personalized.

Dickens is writing omnisciently, so there are no characters in the description. It's very neutral and standoffish.

While Tharp has:

  • Character Expectations -- character thought it would be a real shack
  • Character History -- we learn that the character lived in a house like this one before
  • Character Building -- this character is an alcoholic, so he uses a drinking metaphor, with the shot glass

My point isn't that one style is better or worse -- my point is that you have to know which style is right for you and your readers.

Placement: The Detail that Matters

I should also say that choosing a description length is primarily dependent on WHERE it arrives in the book.

A paragraph of long description might be perfect for one section of the book, where you're seeking to slow down the pace to build tension before the big reveal.

While in another section of the book, where you want the pacing to run lickety-split, you would want to focus more on action and less on description.

Also, use Contrast.

If you just had a super-fast section, then slow it down with a lengthy description in the next section (because you bought some time for yourself).

If you've had a slower pace for some time, then trim that description down and get to some action/dialogue.

Hope that helps!


John Matthew Fox


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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