Avoiding the Pitfalls of Too Much Description
by Hannah Earthman, editor
Reading is a participation pastime, which is sometimes difficult for writers to remember. Rather than witnessing a visually inflexible world—as with movies, TV, etc.—readers are called on to use their own imagination and understanding of the world to fill in the gaps. This means that, in a sense, releasing your finished book represents an act of confidence in readers as a general institution, thinking, “I’ve done my part; the rest is up to them.” Which is easier thought than done.
One of the more challenging things for writers to keep in mind is that readers are capable of understanding the point of an exchange, scene, or sequence with just a few well-placed clues. Particularly when a scene is loaded with action or some your loveliest description, it’s hard to admit that readers can get the point with less—and that whether or not less is always more, more is definitely less when your reader got it several details ago and is now getting irked at your verbosity.
But if your job isn’t to lead readers by the hand through all the technicalities, what is important to say? How do you determine when to say when with your own description?
Matching Your Description to a Scene’s Pacing
Appropriate pacing should be a main consideration as you decide how much and what type of description to include. If you’re writing a fast-paced action scene or conveying a single abrupt act, wordy descriptions work against you.
Jay McInerney is, with this and with plenty of other techniques, a great example. Take the following excerpt from Bright Lights, Big City in which the narrator (“you”) has just hailed a cab:
You jog over and lean in the window. “I guess I’ll walk after all.”
“Asshole.” He leaves rubber.
There’s no question in your mind that the cabbie gives the narrator a dirty look and then peels off so fast that “you” have to step or stumble backward. Which is just a more boring and long-winded way of saying he leaves rubber. Importantly, the pacing of McInerney’s description delivers that same snappy timing you’d experience were you to tick off a cab driver who then sped off.
The burden is on your writing style to create for readers a visceral sense of the action your actual words describe; if your style is languidly loquacious for a scene that’s supposed to make their hearts race, you’ve got a contrast—and a problem.
(Note: This isn’t to say you can’t use that exact contrast; a scene or sequence in which distortion itself is being emphasized could benefit from disparity between the descriptive pace and the pacing that would accompany the action in real life. When would this make sense? When your main character’s mindset is—synthetically or otherwise—maladjusted to the objective world; when a character has just received the sort of news that momentarily hijacks his synchronization with reality; etc. This style is the right choice for a specific type of scene, though, and, as with other atypical stylistic choices, will quickly get on readers’ nerves if overused and will stand out—in a bad way—if used when it makes no sense for a given scene.)
Resisting the Urge to Interpret Your Characters
Since you know everything going on in your characters’ heads and hearts, it feels natural to interpret for them. And, hey, sometimes that either can’t be avoided or truly is the right thing for a scene. Most of the time, though, it’s better to let the action, physical descriptions, and dialogue build a scene that allows readers to deduce for themselves what a character is thinking, scheming, realizing, feeling.
Additionally, the more you can “show” what a character is thinking or feeling, the more memorable it will be for readers. Three chapters down the line, your readers will still remember a character washing the dishes so hard she broke a wineglass; they’re less likely to retain that “she was mad.”
As with many areas of storytelling, writing the right description is easier when you can think of yourself as a reader. If you were reading this in someone else’s book, how much detail would you actually need before you “got it”? Determining this about your own work isn’t always easy, particularly when it comes to a book that’s been culminating in your head for months or even years. This is where an experienced literary editor can be of service: letting you know whether the pacing of your description checks out, whether your characters’ thoughts and emotions shine through their actions sans direct interpretation in the narrative, and, overall, how much is enough.
Hannah has content editing, copyediting, and proofreading experience she can put to work for you.