How much is enough? How much is too much? In my work with fiction writers, I’ve encountered those who underdescribe and those who overdescribe. More typically, though, it’s quality not quantity that’s the biggest problem.
There are two primary purposes for descriptions in novels: (1) to provide imagery; (2) to provide characterization.
Readers need something to picture in order to become immersed in the dream world you create for them. Vivid images help to provide a sense of realism. Part of a writer’s job is to sketch out a setting so readers can quickly and easily imagine the scene. If there’s not enough to picture, the reader will feel like a blind person stumbling around in the dark. Imagine a novel with all dialogue and no description. What you’d actually have is a script. And, in fact, many novice writers do write “novels” that read more like scripts.
In one case, when I called a writer’s attention to lack of description in her historical novel set in the Old West, she resisted, saying she didn’t care that much about the physical setting or what the characters were doing (how they prepared their food or their wagons, etc.)–she cared about the character interactions, the emotional part of the story. But the problem is that readers won’t engage emotionally in the story unless it feels real to them. And a big part of what makes it feel real are those descriptive details.
Also, in a historical setting, it’s just plain interesting for readers to get to see how people accomplished things before technology took over everyday life. That intellectual engagement is part of what makes for a good reading experience. After my client put in a little more work (including some research) and added details about how the village looked and how pioneers found food during their journeys through the wilderness, etc., her narrative read so much more smoothly, felt more real, and held readers’ attention even during the less dramatic moments in the story.
Ah, but too much detail, especially about trivial things, will overwhelm the reader and make her feel she’s wasting time wading through annoying verbiage to get to the story. What I typically see is too much mundane detail (“The mustachioed, bald-headed guy at the deli counter grinned as he carefully sliced the Boarshead turkey and then forcefully diced an underripe tomato, all the while whistling an off-key rendition of — Okay, okay, get to the point!
Yes, the reader needs something to picture. But here’s an important rule of thumb: readers don’t need a whole lot of help. They just need a few basic details and their imaginations will fill in the rest. If you present too many specific details of colors, fabrics, landscaping, etc., you will turn off readers and they will skip right over your glorious nouns and adjectives—or worse, just stop reading and pick up a different book. It’s fine to say, “She drove up to a modest two-story gray clapboard house surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes.” This gives a sense that the house is not opulent but not a slum either.
Don’t describe the shutters, the individual plantings, the flagstaff walk, the birdbath in the front yard-unless there really is something remarkable at the site. You want to paint a general picture and move on.
On the other hand, the presence of a birdbath, several squirrel feeders, and a giant doghouse might be important if you want to indicate that the resident of the house loves animals-which may be relevant to the story or an important part of the characterization.
The other really important task that narrative details accomplish is to help with characterization. Well-chosen descriptive details give clues to the personality of the characters and help you follow the golden rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Thus, it might be fitting to describe the plunging neckline and peekaboo black-lace bra of a character who is flirtatious; the oversized, well-worn brown polyester pants of a character who is down on his luck; the buttoned-up black-and-white houndstooth wool jacket of an uptight character who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But don’t then go on to describe the outfit of every character who appears in the story, including that of the waitress, the gas station attendant, and the receptionist at the doctor’s office. Be selective. Choose what’s important. Don’t describe just for the sake of describing.
When the narration is coming through the point-of-view of a character (as opposed to an omniscient narrator), the choice of details should tell the reader something about what this narrator-character tends to notice and thus what he or she feels is important. Be careful to choose details that are in character for the narrator. A hard-boiled PI interviewing a suspect will notice the kinds of details that might help him assess a person’s culpability: demeanor, eye contact, mood, etc. A vain teenaged girl will focus on people’s clothing and hairstyles because that’s what she cares about. Whenever there is a PoV switch (ideally, from chapter to chapter, not within a chapter), there should be a change in style, vocabulary, perhaps even grammar for each narrator, and also a focus on different sort of details. If every character provides the same sort of descriptions, readers will not really experience the PoV as different and unique.
Work the details in organically
These are five words I often write in my critiques to authors. What many amateur writers tend to do is describe surroundings and physical traits of characters in a rather heavy-handed way, as though they are providing instructions for set designers and casting directors working on a film version of their novel. The result is a book that feels more like a script than a novel. Given the influence of film nowadays, it’s inevitable that novels have become more filmic. As an editor of “a certain age,” I have learned to accept this fact-yes, the novel, like everything else, has evolved. But sometimes this filmic style is taken so far that I have to ask the writer if he or she might not be more comfortable simply writing a script rather than a novel.
To avoid this script-like feel, don’t give a full physical description of a character the instant the character appears in the story. Instead, integrate those details into the story in a natural way. The description should relate to the thoughts the narrator is having-it should not feel like a break in the action.
For example, consider these two different treatments of a passage in a novel in which a new character is introduced.
1. Elizabeth turned around and found herself face to face with her former best friend. Karina was about five-foot-ten and had long auburn hair and green eyes. She was wearing a denim miniskirt, pink slouch sweater, and knee-high black boots. They smiled at each other and awkwardly began to make small talk.
2. Elizabeth turned around and found herself face to face with her former best friend. They smiled at each other and awkwardly began to make small talk. Elizabeth was intimidated, as always, by the confident way in which Karina tossed long strands of her auburn hair out of her lovely green eyes as she talked. [A little later on in the scene.] Because Karina was a good six inches taller than Elizabeth, she often felt her friend was talking down to her. [A little later still] Struggling to think of another topic of conversation, Elizabeth turned her attention to Karina’s outfit: a denim miniskirt, pink slouch sweater, and knee-high black boots. They had shopped for those boots together in better times.
In the first example, the entire physical description is announced the minute the character shows up, as though Elizabeth is breaking out of character to shout, “Okay, people, here’s what you should picture when you picture Karina.” In the second, Elizabeth mentions the different details only when they are relevant to what she is thinking about in the moment. The flow is better and the narration doesn’t feel heavy-handed-it feels as though we are truly in Elizabeth’s head.
The same goes for descriptions of settings. When a character first drives up to a building, then certainly it makes sense to describe the building in a general sense. Is it a multi-story? Is it made of brick? Is it rundown? But bring in other details of the setting only as they become relevant to the character in the progression of the story.
Generally speaking, in a plot- or character-based story, keep descriptive detail to a minimum. Choose a few details that help readers picture the scene without overwhelming them with decor, color schemes, etc. (On the other hand, if you have a setting that is historical, such as Jazz Age Chicago; or exotic, such as Thailand; or has a lot of ambience, such as New Orleans during Mardi Gras, then descriptive details are more essential and more interesting, because the setting is part of the story.) The reader doesn’t need to know the body type, eye and hair color, and attire of every character who appears-mention only a few key details to describe minor characters.
Overall, offer details that convey vivid images with relatively few words and that do double-duty in helping with characterization.