I’ve written about this subject before, back in 2011, but it still seems to endlessly confuse writers on what is deemed the right amount of description in a novel, particularly when the writer needs to get a lot of information across to the reader without destroying the fabric of the story or leaving the reader deflated with the lack of detail.
But getting the balance right is quite a challenge.
There is a multitude of advice available where description is concerned. Some advise writers to keep things minimal, while others agree that description is a necessity and writers shouldn’t compromise pertinent details, especially as it plays an important role in embellishing the story.
There are advantages of using more description, but that doesn’t negate the use of brevity when it’s needed.
I know I’ve mentioned this before in other articles, but the holy trinity of description, narrative and dialogue falls into what is known as the Goldilocks zone – not too much, not too little, but just about right. And that’s what writers should aim for with description. It’s about finding a balance.
It has to be said that more description is sometimes preferred and at other times less description is better. There is no or wrong. It depends entirely on the scene and all its elements.
There are a lot of options available to the writer to help him or her get the balance right.
When more description is required
It’s entirely acceptable to have lengthy descriptive scenes every now and then. Certain scenes demand it because description helps the writer convey different sensations – mood, tension, atmosphere, emotion and pace. For instance, a foreboding and pensive scene in a darkened house can’t exist on a minimal description, simply because it gives absolutely nothing to the reader. They won’t be able to engage with it or visualise it.
More description is needed in these types of scenes so that the writer can show the sense of foreboding and tension and the primal fears, to make the reader almost reach in and feel the atmosphere. In other words, longer descriptions serve an important function.
At other times, different ‘action’ scenes require more descriptions in order to allow the reader to imagine they’re part of the story.
Description provides pertinent information that would otherwise be overlooked, things like background detail and setting.
More description is also necessary when the writer needs to elaborate on certain scenes to help the reader become part of the story, to become involved on a personal level, to become absorbed by beautiful the brush strokes and visual imagery.
When it becomes a negative
Too much description can become a problem if left unchecked, since it’s so easy for writers to get carried away while writing. It can be distracting for a reader when confronted with large swathes of description that doesn’t really do anything for the story.
When less description is required
Plenty of writers erroneously believe that description should be brief and concise, no matter what. Brevity is the new buzzword. But brevity only works when description demands it, otherwise the resulting novel will simply not be worth reading because it will provide too much ‘telling’ and will ‘show’ very little.
Brief description tends to quicken the pace, so it’s very useful for strong action scenes. The writing uses shorter, staccato words to keep it taut and fast.
Brief description is also perfect for breaking up long lines of dialogue. Having the character break from speaking, followed by a brief description of something – it could be an emotion, something they notice or an action of some sort -
When it becomes a negative
Too little description at the right moment will kill the overall effect you want to achieve because you are not allowing the reader to become involved, you are not creating enough in the scene to make it interesting, and certainly a lack of description won’t move the story forward.
The wrong kinds of description
Amplification, circumlocution, purple prose...these are the kinds of description that writers should look out for. Amplification means the writer embellishes the sentence by adding more information in the hope to increase its comprehension. Sometimes that works, but often it just creates more description than is necessary. Circumlocution means the writer creates long and overly complex sentences in order to convey a meaning that could have otherwise been conveyed through a shorter, simpler sentence structures. And everyone knows what purple prose is – description that is just too over the top and flowery and jammed with adjectives.
Another one is the info dump, where too much mind-numbing information is described that serves no purpose for the story and doesn’t move it forward in any way.
Next week we’ll look at ways to best blend description, choose what to describe and when and how to make the most of description.
Next week: Too Much v. Too Little Description Part 2