The Art Of Description: How Much Do You Need?

One of my favorite books is Stephen King’s On Writing, and one of my favorite parts of that book is when he describes the rabbit. Remember that part? After a few sentences, readers pictured a white rabbit with a blue number eight on it. King used the illustration to describe the telepathic nature of reading and writing.

King quoteIt’s a pretty cool concept. With just a few words, I can make you think/see/smell/touch certain things.

Smell a box of crayons.

Run your fingers over that sandpaper.

Pick up that bowling ball. Careful, it’s a sixteen pounder.

Admire the glowing sunrise.

Someone’s cooking bacon. The smell is wafting through the house.

If I’m good, I can make you feel things, too. Not with your fingers, but with your emotions.

This is where I think the art of description comes into play. If I over-describe something, it will require you the reader to pull out of the story and imagine all the details I’ve described. This gets in the way of emotional connection.

To illustrate, let’s pick apart the 100-word short story I posted a few days ago. Feedback from that is what really got me thinking about this. Read it real quick and I’ll see you at the bottom.

I approach the place Kendra is resting. I creep, as if it will make my task easier.

“Baby, I have something to tell you.”

Silence answers me.

“This will be hard for you to hear.” I twist the plastic surrounding the bouquet. “I’ve been seeing someone else. For the past four months.”

I swallow, imagining tears, screaming. Instead, there is silence.

A lump forms in my throat. This is harder than I thought it would be.

“I don’t expect you to understand. Just remember that I love you.”

I place the daisies – Kendra’s favorite – on her headstone.

It’s time for me to leave.

The trick with short stories is telling the whole thing with a limited number of words. In this case, 100. Writers tend to be an overly verbose bunch, so these shorter ones are especially challenging.

Without looking back at this story, let me ask you a few questions.

What color were the daisies?

What was the weather like?

What gender was the lover?

You can look back now if you want.

I intentionally didn’t include these details, partly because they could have ruined the twist at the end (particularly the weather one), but mostly because I knew readers would fill in those blanks. I only had 100 words and describing any of that would have put me over the limit. Describing the scene exactly how I imagined it wouldn’t have added anything. Granted, if I had more words, I might have added some description about Kendra’s hair falling over her shoulder and the memory of her laugh. Those would have added to the emotional punch.

So what’s the take away? In most cases, I’d say err on the side of less description, especially if the story involves lots of familiar details. Readers can fill those in from their own experiences. We don’t need to know if the fridge is stainless steel or black (unless it matters to the story for some reason). Obviously, if you write fantasy and everything is unfamiliar, you’ll need more.

And that’s the art of it, right? There is a right amount of description, and that amount totally depends on your story and what you’re trying to convey. Too little, and readers may struggle to visualize the story. Too much, and they’re skimming. That’s why feedback from betas and critique partners is so important.

Where do you land on the continuum of description? Are you lean like me, or do you go with more details? 

19 thoughts on “The Art Of Description: How Much Do You Need?

  1. Reblogged this on The Beauty of Words and commented:
    Description is something that definitely is best in the happy medium range, but every reader’s ideal is unique. As writers, our approach will be our own, too.

    Like Allison, I lean toward spare rather than ornate, although I have to add description back into my drafts. Beta readers and critique partners are your best friends here.

    Anyway, read on. Allison’s got a great 100-word short to illustrate her point. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Unlike most of the people here, I’m a pruner. I write gobs and gobs of description, vast untamed paragraphs of it if I don’t control myself. Even if I do, a lot of it’s going to end up cut and in the trash bin. I have nothing but respect and murderous envy for people who can go minimalist. I think it’s why flash fiction is so good for me, it really does take artificial limits for me to cut it down.

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  5. Great post!

    I’m a minimalist, and I maybe shouldn’t be. Fantasy requires a little more detail than most genres, I think–simply because you’re describing things people haven’t necessarily seen before–but I still tend to err on the side of less is more. A good noun says more than five lukewarm adjectives. A glass of champagne, for instance, wins over a glass of bubbly wine the color of pale amber in a fluted glass. Your reader knows what champagne looks like, what type of glass it’s in. Describing the champagne, unless there’s something unusual about it, is beside the point–even if the reader DOESN’T know, again, it probably isn’t so important it’s worth calling attention to. (If it’s attention-worthy: well, you describe it. Short and sweet. That’s how I roll, at least. I describe it if I think a reader’s eye should rest on it.)

    On Writing is awesome. It’s, like, the best thing Stephen King’s written. And that includes Insomnia. And I loved Insomnia.

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    • I’ve been working on a YA urban fantasy, so I have to describe more than I’m used to. One of the trickiest things to describe is the size of various creatures. I try to drop hints – “He ducked down and scraped his sides when he squeezed through the door”, but my crit partners still say they’re confused at times with some of the others. I think I’ll have to use relative size: taller than a door. As wide as a car. I think measurements – 12 feet tall – would irritate me.

      I’ve read a lot of King’s work but Insomnia isn’t one of them! Adding it to my TBR list.

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      • Oh, God, units of measurement in fantasy. I try to do that too–a creature ‘the size of a wagon’–because I always feel just a little uncomfortable giving a size in inches and feet. I mean, for one, insert your choice comment about the efficacy of our measuring system out in the big wide world here. And, two–bringing up inches and feet and miles kind of breaks the fourth wall a little bit. Miles I usually can’t avoid–anything else is just too noticeable–but I’ve gotten around inches and feet the way you’re suggesting.

        Btw, FINALLY picked up your book today. Sorry it took me so long, but, as my bosses had to pay me first…you know how it goes. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post as usual, Allison. I’m definitely a minimalist when it comes to description, or at least I aim to be. I try to give only what’s necessary and leave the rest to the imagination of my readers.

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  7. Given how concisely you present and demonstrate your point here, it’s no surprise that you know how to describe effectively in your fiction too. In early drafts, sometimes I put in details so I can picture what I’m writing about, but there’s a difference between what I need and what the reader is going to need. Too many writers don’t understand, I think, how important cutting is to revision. Great post.

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    • Thanks! I’ve been doing “behind the scenes” posts related to my book that readers/fb followers have really enjoyed. They’re basically about the stuff I needed but the reader didn’t – how certain scenes/characters were developed, the research that went into the plot points, etc. So the stuff you don’t include can still be useful, just not written out in the actual book.

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  8. “Where do you land on the continuum of description? Are you lean like me, or do you go with more details?”

    I tend to be moderately lean on details, and I thought this was a huge disadvantage until I read your article today. This . . . writers *need* to bookmark this and return to it whenever they need a reminder in trusting our readers to fill in those details for us to personalize and enrich their own reading experience. Beautifully done, both your article and your 100-word fiction.

    Thank you, Allison.

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  9. Hi Alison,

    I wrote a post on a similar theme recently comparing modern books with older ones, say like Dickens, and asked which people preferred. Overall people said they liked to decide certain things themselves and not be told. Just like you illustrated with your short story.

    Your story highlighted the point really well. I read it and was surprised by the twist.

    Best wishes,

    Mark

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