Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as “too much description”

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as “too much description”
©April 26, 2011 By: Daven Anderson

As writers, we are always told (pun intended) to “show, not tell.” We are supposed to give lavish, detailed descriptions of each and every detail of our characters’ surroundings.

Let me compose an example for you:

My thumb snapped the dry, ancient flint wheel of my tarnished, weather-beaten sterling silver vintage Zippo. The cascading sparks caressed the hissing jet of lighter fluid, setting off a deep blue flame that quickly transformed to a yellow glow matching the bulbs of the streetlights glimmering above. I drew the flame closer to the tiny tobacco leaves in my hand-rolled cigarette, watching them ignite to life in a multitude of burning red hues, ready to render the exquisite pleasure and satisfaction that can only come from inhaling nicotine.

Problem: Is this a realistic train of thought for your character? Does the example above move the story forward? Does it give you any insight into your character’s thoughts?

Here’s what a real-life character would actually think: “Clicked my lighter and took a drag. Nice night for a smoke.”

How about a more realistic, less bogged-down “dramatic embellishment” supplementary suffix to the above two sentences?

Nothing like my old Zippo. Always works through thick and thin. Too bad no one rolls their own smokes anymore, like I still do. Can’t stand those chemical-tasting white coffin nails.

There. Thirty-two words in four sentences. You get the Zippo lighter, the hand-rolled cigarette and how the character feels about them. Without the ninety-word bombast of my deliberately overstated first example.

If you use an excess level of description, not only do you bog down your story’s pace, you are actually taking away elements of the story that can and should be left to the readers’ imaginations.

Too many writers endeavor to describe every last detail of their characters’ world, at the expense of other story elements. I’ve read more than a few books where excess descriptions stop the story in its tracks like a deer caught in the glare of headlights. The characters were pushed so far into the background as to be almost non-existent. If I hadn’t read previous excerpts of these authors’ works, I would have had no clues regarding any of the characters’ motivations.

Many authors seek to create a movie in your mind. The impeccably crafted prose of the books mentioned above most certainly accomplishes that goal. But, I must ask, what is the greatest advantage a novel has over a movie? Being able to get inside a character’s mind.

My readers can imagine the inside of an interrogation room, but they can’t “imagine” the inner workings of my character. This is the reason why I focus on characters’ motivations, not about the rooms they happen to be in.

33 Of The Most Hilariously Terrible First Sentences In Literature History

Update August 2014: Kristen Lamb’s post, addressing WHY there is such a thing as “too much description”

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2 Comments

  1. Haha Love this post! I just write like I see it and you do too! I’m reading Vampire Syndrome and it’s fun, straightforward and not all caught up in language art… yuck! Anyway, just wanted to make a quick comment that I think this post is awesome! Take care, EMILY

  2. Your comment shows I succeeded in my mission. I want the language and description to compliment the story, not get in the way.

    Since none of the current members of the Thursday night group read my blog anyway :twisted:, I can be upfront with you. Some of them write stuff as elaborate (or more so) than my first example, and that’s the kind of writing they enjoy reading. Flashy language will impress a critique group and the “elite-erati”, but it sails above the heads of average real-world readers.

    Thus, a writer who wants to reach a wide audience has to know what to put on the page, and more importantly what not to put on the page. My second example is descriptive, but still easy to read.
    The first example I can picture being recited by William Shatner on YouTube. 😉


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