Description: How much is too much?

Recently, I received an email from an aspiring author seeking guidance on descriptions. Her question to me was how much is too much? So I’m going to try to answer that question today.

One of the first things you learn when you start to write is show, don’t tell. I think the easiest way to explain this rule is by comparing a movie to a book. In a movie, we are told what to think. We see it on the screen, there’s really no room to dream up what the hunky hero looks like, or the house, or the school.

But in a book … well, that’s an entirely different world. As a writer, you get to create everything. You get to set the location, dream up the characters, explore their emotions … really the sky is the limit. But, while you are doing it, you need to remember, show, don’t tell.

Readers do not want to be told he was angry, they want to see it. Did he ball his fists into white knuckled rocks? Did his jaw twitch? Did his neck flush red? His cheeks? Little descriptions can make a huge difference in how a reader visualizes the scene.

But … how much is too much? Stephen King says: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

So what does this mean? Well, simply, it means that when you are describing things leave pieces out. For example, maybe you are describing a house. Give us the color of the exterior, describe the entrance. Is there a picket fence? What about the little garden in front? But leave something out, like maybe the color and shape of the roof. Let the reader envision the missing pieces. Let them make the house their own in some way.

As an author, I know how easy it is to get carried away with description, but as an avid reader, I also know how frustrating this can be when it happens. When reading, one of my biggest pet peeves is when an author goes overboard in the description area, and essentially buries the actual story in fluff or gives so much detail that there is no room for my imagination to come up with anything.

The key is, knowing when it’s enough. Use all of your senses, but it’s not necessary to use them all at the same time. Give bits and pieces throughout the scene. Description overload can easily happen when you try to put all the pieces in one paragraph. Start the image, and then continue with it through the scene, dropping little morose as you go. Give your reader enough to spark their own imagination without leaving them in a tunnel, or boring them with so much at once that they lose the story all together.