In terms of personal preference, for both authors and readers, there is a fair bit of leeway in the answer to the question of how much description is too much in a novel or memoir. However, in terms of craftsmanship the answer to this question is clear. What’s not so clear is how you, as an author, determine whether or not your work meets the criteria for the right amount of description.
Whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir, some description of scenes and people is required to set the scene. Without some indication of how people and their environment look, the reader has nothing with which to stimulate their imagination, and reading is essentially an imaginative endeavour. We want a book to carry us off into other people’s stories and into the cities, towns, countries, times and even planets, universes and realms in which the story takes place. Description provides a rich texture that stimulates the readers’ imaginations, helping them to immerse themselves in the story.
A story without description feels barren, as if the action happens nowhere or somewhere too vague to imagine. Even if it’s set in a known place like New York, authors shouldn’t assume that all or any of their readers have been to New York, and even if they had, people have different perceptions of the same place. What your point of view character notices when they describe a scene and the words they use to describe it tells the reader a lot about the character, thus deepening the characterisation.
A cheerful person, for instance, is more likely to notice the sunshine than the shadows, but when miserable, that same person would be more likely to dwell on the deep shadows in a room. A teen uses different language to an adult and the words they use indicate not just what they’re seeing, but also how they feel about it. For example, what is a ‘stunning Rueben’s original’ to the adult with the art history background is ‘some kind of old picture’ to the teen more interested in stealing the flat screen TV.
Settings can also be used as symbols for characters, relationships and even plot complications. For example, a woman who keeps repeating the same mistakes, or whose life seems to be going nowhere, looks up at the Ferris wheel in the fair ground and feels like she’s on it. You don’t have to labour the links, just having them there adds to the depth of the writing. The quality of the light in a scene is important too; the way light falls on a character (sharp or soft), the colour (warm or cold), the general atmosphere of the environment (tense or relaxed), and the time of day all make the writing more evocative.
And don’t limit your description to what a character sees, also show what they smell, feel and hear, and even what they taste if it’s relevant.
But don’t use descriptions of everything all the way through the book. Keep them to where you’re introducing a new scene or character and even then limit the description to only what is relevant to the story. Readers don’t need or want a full account. If you overload them, you leave nothing to their imagination and you slow the pace of the story. You need to give them enough description so that they can imagine the scene but not so much that they get bogged down in unnecessary detail. Not only does it become tedious but also it slows the pace of the story.
For instance, the look of someone’s hands maybe important if they indicate something important about the character, like the liege lord with calloused hands—it tells us that he works with his hands, which is unusual for an aristocrat. If, however, I described the hands of everyone, every time a character shook hands, it would soon become tedious.
Just describe the things that are relevant to the characters and the action. The things the point of view character would notice or that are important for the story.
Here is an example of an overwritten description:
She pushed through the creaky gate into a garden of tall shrubs pressed up against the wooden fence on one side and bordered by grass on the other. Terrified of being seen, she dropped onto her hands and knees and scrambled beneath the shrubs. The bark chip mulch pressed painfully into her bare knees and palms, and twigs caught her hair, but she continued crawling until she came to the corner of the fence separating the garden from the party next door, then she pressed her back against the wooden fence and tried to still her heaving chest and convince herself that none of this was real.
What’s wrong with this? It reads quite well by itself, but if it’s in the middle of a scene where the character is running from a pursuer and the reader just wants to know if she escapes or not, then the detail slows down the action. Some authors fall into the trap of writing their whole novel like this, with every action being described in detail, but the effect is not an immersive experience as they probably hoped, but a tedious one—can we just get to the point! Does the reader need to know the details of the garden through which she crawls to get to the fence or just that she got there by crawling through the garden?
What you need to ask is: is how she gets to the place where she rests important in this scene? Or is the important point that she does find somewhere to rest? Is the fact that there is grass on one side, a fence on the other and mulch beneath the shrubs important for the story? Does it matter that her hands and knees are sore and twigs grab her hair? Not in the context of the scene in my book Lethal Inheritance that I used for this example. I did consider writing it this way, until I realised that I needed to keep the story moving, and that the next part of the story where she watches a demon feeding off the people at the party is much more important and really does need a detailed description. Had such a key scene followed a passage written like this, it may have lost its impact in all the words.
This is how the above scene appears in Lethal Inheritance:
She ducked into the shadowy garden next door to the party, flopped to the ground behind the wooden fence and tried to still her heaving chest and convince herself that none of this was real.
This is the same action pared back to its essentials, to only what the reader needs to know. The word ‘shadowy’ gives the feel of the garden without dwelling on its appearance and layout, something that actually isn’t that important. What’s important to the character and, therefore, to the reader is that she ‘flopped to the ground behind the wooden fence’, presumably safe for now.
The introduction of a new character is an obvious place in which to describe how the character looks, however, the reader doesn’t need to know their exact height and weight, their shoe size, their dental work, a detailed description of everything they’re wearing or their history. The reader won’t remember all that anyway. All they need to know initially is what the point of view character would notice, which generally is hair colour and length, whether they are unusually tall or short, fat or thin, and the style and colour of their clothing. If they are of medium height and weight, don’t mention it; only make a note of it if their height, weight or body type is unusual.
Compare the following examples:
Someone was definitely following me. I could hear their heavy footsteps behind me, so I broke into a run, turned into a side street and hid behind a tin fence. The footsteps sped up and rounded the corner. I peeked through a hole to see my pursuer.
The man was six-feet, two-inches tall, a solid two-hundred pounds and wore biker boots on his size-eleven feet. Tatty jeans, ripped at the knees and smeared with grease hung low on his hips, revealing the top of his Donald Duck boxer shorts. His grey T-shirt, emblazoned with a faded picture of Donald Trump and the words, ‘Make America Great Again,’ had either shrunk in the wash or was purposely small to reveal his bulging muscles. He had beady eyes, set close together, and full lips. Lanky black hair fell over his face and a baseball cap sat backwards on his head.
I recognised him. His name was Terrance Baker. He owned the garage by the school—had inherited it after his father died four years ago. I figured he was a few years older than I, perhaps thirty five, as he’d been in my brother’s year at school – in the low grade. I remember my brother complaining that he drank a lot of alcohol and was rude to girls. They weren’t friends, but were on the same football team.
He ran on, a few paces past my hiding place, then stopped and turned, looking around. I shrank back behind the bush, hoping he wouldn’t see me. Then I heard his footsteps clatter on down the street and I breathed out a sigh of relief.
Even if he ends up being a major character, in a situation where the reader just wants to know what happens next, this detailed description is slowing down the pace terribly, especially the back story. Where I editing it, this is what I’d suggest:
Someone was definitely following me. I could hear their heavy footsteps behind me, so I broke into a run, turned into a side street and hid behind a leafy shrub in someone’s garden. The footsteps sped up and rounded the corner. I peeked through the leaves to see my pursuer.
The man was tall and solidly built with lanky black hair. He wore a baseball cap backwards, biker boots, dirty tattered jeans, and a faded Trump-supporter T-shirt that clung to his bulging muscles.
He ran on, a few paces past my hiding place, then stopped and turned, looking around through close-set beady eyes. I shrank back behind the bush, hoping he wouldn’t see me, but I’d already recognised him. His name was Terrance Baker, and he owned the garage by the school. A moment later, I heard his footsteps clatter on down the street, and I breathed out a sigh of relief.
Note how I mentioned his eyes as part of the action, rather than as part of a separate description. The other details, should any of them be important could be included when the protagonist meets Terrance again, but all those background details are irrelevant unless he’s a major character.
Descriptions are best written as part of the action rather than as separate descriptive paragraphs. They should only tell the reader details that are important to the story or indicate something about the character doing the observing, and should never slow the pace. If you or your beta readers are tempted to skip descriptions when reading it over, then they’re too long. If your word count is too high, check your descriptions. If your descriptions are excessive, you’ll find you can cut them back by half without losing the descriptive magic.
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