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Descriptive Detail in Novel-Writing

carly-cantor-book-manuscript-line-editorby Carly Cantor

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Details, details, the bane of so many would-be authors. How much is enough? How much is too much? In my work with fiction writers, I’ve encountered those who underdescribe and those who overdescribe. More typically, though, it’s quality not quantity that’s the biggest problem.

There are two primary purposes for descriptions in novels: (1) to provide imagery; (2) to provide characterization. I will discuss these two primary purposes in two separate articles. A third article will discuss how to integrate details into a narrative in a manner that feels organic as opposed to heavy-handed.

Readers need something to picture in order to become immersed in the dream world you create for them. Vivid images help to provide a sense of realism. Part of a writer’s job is to sketch out a setting so readers can quickly and easily imagine the scene. If there’s not enough to picture, the reader will feel like a blind person stumbling around in the dark. Imagine a novel with all dialogue and no description. What you’d actually have is a script. And, in fact, many novice writers do write “novels” that read more like scripts.

In one case, when I called a writer’s attention to lack of description in her historical novel set in the Old West, she resisted, saying she didn’t care that much about the physical setting or what the characters were doing (how they prepared their food or their wagons, etc.)—she cared about the character interactions, the emotional part of the story. But the problem is that readers won’t engage emotionally in the story unless it feels real to them. And a big part of what makes it feel real are those descriptive details.

Also, in a historical setting, it’s just plain interesting for readers to get to see how people accomplished things before technology took over everyday life. That intellectual engagement is part of what makes for a good reading experience. After my client put in a little more work (including some research) and added details about how the village looked and how pioneers found food during their journeys through the wilderness, etc., her narrative read so much more smoothly, felt more real, and held readers’ attention even during the less dramatic moments in the story.

Ah, but too much detail, especially about trivial things, will overwhelm the reader and make her feel she’s wasting time wading through annoying verbiage to get to the story. What I typically see is too much mundane detail (“The mustachioed, bald-headed guy at the deli counter grinned as he carefully sliced the Boarshead turkey and then forcefully diced an underripe tomato, all the while whistling an off-key rendition of ….” Okay, okay, get to the point!)

Yes, the reader needs something to picture. But here’s an important rule of thumb: readers don’t need a whole lot of help. They just need a few basic details and their imaginations will fill in the rest. If you present too many specific details of colors, fabrics, landscaping, etc., you will turn off readers and they will skip right over your glorious nouns and adjectives—or worse, just stop reading and pick up a different book. It’s fine to say, “She drove up to a modest two-story gray clapboard house surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes.” This gives a sense that the house is not opulent but not a slum either. Don’t describe the shutters, the individual plantings, the flagstaff walk, the birdbath in the front yard—unless there really is something remarkable at the site. You want to paint a general picture and move on. On the other hand, the presence of a birdbath, several squirrel feeders, and a giant doghouse might be important if you want to indicate that the resident of the house loves animals—which may be relevant to the story or an important part of the characterization.

In part 2, we’ll look at characterization.

(To be continued.)

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