Writing description in fiction, how much is too much?
I can already see the objects being thrown at me as I begin to talk about description in fiction. My critique group has had a “fun” time trying to kick me of my habit of too much description. It is a common mistake, especially among first-timers, for writers to fill a book with description. And if anyone understands these kinds of writers, it’s me. It’s the fun part. You get to be creative and craft a unique picture for your readers. It has also been the death of many a manuscript.
First of all, yes, an abundance of description was popular way back when. People didn’t have televisions, films, and photographs to help them visualize the many aspects of our earth, architecture, and culture. So authors like Jane Austin had to create a detailed world using large amounts of description. As modern authors, we no longer have to establish such a picture. We all know what the Eiffel Tower looks like. We know what the average forest, desert, and skyscraper look like. There is no longer the need to describe such things in great detail.
I know what you’re going to say, “But Stephen King uses a lot of description.” Yeah, well you’re not Stephen King. If you are trying to get published for the first time, don’t assume what you think makes you unique will fly with most publishers and agents. Stephen King is established, he can do whatever he wants, even if most editors no longer find certain techniques acceptable.
Okay, that’s out of the way. So let’s go over the few basic guidelines I have been taught from creative writing teachers and authors alike.
The biggest thing you need to remember: Description is meant to move the story along. An effective description will create a picture for the reader but will leave some room for interpretation. It should establish an atmosphere using sensory detail without boring the reader with too much description or disorientating them with too little. Finding a balance is the challenge.
When deciding on when and how much you should describe, try to stick with arbitrary or unique things. Describe when you want to establish something is distinct about a character or scenery, subconscious details. These are what drives the characters, makes them real. Everyone wears shirts, but not everyone wears them inside out. What would that say about a character?
Description can also slow down a scene. Try to avoid page after page of just description. Strive to intertwine it between dialogue, it makes it less tedious to read and mingles better with the story. Some say to integrate it with action as well. But I have also seen that it can slow down the action’s momentum. I think it comes down to experience. I have seen writers effectively describe during action where others have failed miserably. If you are going to describe during action, make it short and relevant.
Avoid the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Yes, they sound pretty but editors will mark your manuscript red if you abuse adverbs and adjectives. And don’t use too many descriptive words ending in –ly, it is considered telling, not showing.
A good rule of thumb to follow: a scene should not include more than three of the five senses—taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound. An overabundance of senses can over-stimulate the reader’s own sense, causing them to skip ahead to the action.
Avoid the useless kind of information. We don’t need to know every detail on what a character is wearing or how his hair looks today, just what’s pertinent. Describe when the description serves more than one purpose, when it advances the story and helps characterization.
One author told me to try and follow the three sentence rule. Most description should be no longer than three sentences. And if you are going past a paragraph, then you are veering towards too much information.
Not everyone follows these rules, but if you try to stay as close to them as possible, then you are on your way to writing a great piece of fiction. If you are ever in doubt on your balance of description, have an avid reader go over your manuscript. Ask her if she skipped any parts. If so, then I bet you nine times out of ten it was because of too much description.
Early on in my writing career, I had people tell me they didn’t really start reading one of my chapters until page ten because I bogged it down with chunks of description. Learn from my mistakes. Find a balance and spread out your description so that you’re story continues to move.
References: Most of this information is from discussions with the author Brenda Hill, information from writing workshops, and http://deniserobbins.com/articles_description_in_fiction.html also has similar topics.