Useless Advice from an unpunished author – How much is too much description?

advice, writing, writer
Useless Advice from an unpunished author

This is not very good advice because I don’t know. We all know that description is good, especially in fantasy if you are world building then you need to the reader to see the world. I’ve read books and been very confused as to the setting, I’ve read some that magically transport me to the place and others that have put me to sleep with endless pointless details. In my next re-write of my book one of the many things I plan to do is check that I have not over describe things. I have read a bit on it have picked the following tips;

Only describe important things;

I’ve definitely fallen foul of this, endlessly describing a town my characters spend less than a chapter in. I once wrote a detailed description of the sewer system. There was one scene when the story was in the sewer literally not figuratively. I read quiet a good book that dedicated nearly a chapter to describing how to make proper pizzas, it had nothing to do with the plot and really annoyed me at the time.

What do you really see?

Think about a friend or loved one and then write a quick description, what is it you remember? I willing to bet it’s not the eye colour. Yet lots of books always start with describing a person eyes, I know a lot of mine do. Unless it’s important like Harry Potter’s green eyes don’t bother mentioning it. What we normally remember is one or two striking features, it could be there eccentric dress, the fact they are strikingly beautiful and have full luscious lips or their noise is too big or chin a bit week. When I first met my wife (she wasn’t my wife then I didn’t buy her online) I remember her hair. In a stressful situation you probably notice very little. I was asked to read a chapter of a WiP and the writer spend endless time describe the eyes and face of a person who had just attacked the main character, it just came over as padding. In reality you would be too busy defending yourself or in this case liying on the floor in pain to stare in their eyes and describe them in detail.

Sometimes more is less

Some books can describe a setting with one or two well-crafted sentences. The morning sun reflecting over the roof tiles can often tell us more then detailed descriptions of a building. Would be even better if I could draw and stick in a few illustrations

Use all your senses.

Some of the best of the description includes all your senses, what can your character smell, how does the ground feel under his feet? Is he hot or cold? Is there a breeze ort a strong wind? You get the idea.

Watch your obsessions

For me that would be over describing the clothes. I’m quite geeky about them right for my world I have to remember that’s not interesting to everyone so not to describe in detail whatever incidental character has on. Another friend of mine insisted on describing the guns in his book in very technically detail, all very impressive but I find it a tad boring.

Well there is it is anyone else have some useful tip bits on description, all advice is gratefully received?

49 thoughts on “Useless Advice from an unpunished author – How much is too much description?

  1. One piece of advice I was given was to only write description or setting if it carries information about character or plot. So if your character is impatiently scanning the horizon, show that (don’t tell us) by what he looks at, how he interprets it. Maybe that distant thread of smoke will become something, maybe those disturbed birds or the lines on someone’s face will be important later on. I let my readers decide what my characters look like beyond the odd important characteristic like gender, age, height and don’t deliver it all at once. She stands on tiptoes to look over the wall – I think that’s enough.

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  2. I once started reading a novel that was supposed to be a thriller, but the opening pages described who was in the CID office, what time they had come on duty and why so and so was at work when it should have been his day off and what everyone was wearing… I didn’t read any further. To set the scene you could just write ‘Hello Dave, thought it was your day off, we don’t usually see you wearing a tie.’

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  3. I always mention the character’s eye color and eye expression no matter what color they because so much emotions can read in a person’s eyes that there’s no need to write a full description of them. 🙂

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      1. Yes, that is a worrisome attributed to add to a character. When I can’t think of an appropriate hue I let their eyes do a lot of talking like the actors in the old silent movies.

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      2. I can’t say I know what I’m doing. LOL! For I don’t think there are any set standard of rules on this sort of things. I don’t think this is a set in stone rule. I think it more of a thing where each author decides what work best for them. It’s a method I invented to keep from crowding all the descriptions on one page and boring the reader. I find writing to be more or less a trial and error, keep trying until you get it into a novel. Yes, I have gotten a few books published by a small publishing firm.

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      3. I thought it was just me who have read some books where the description of a character, place or thing is just too long. If I am going to add various adjectives to describe a place, person or thing I space them out through out the book so there won’t be two or three pages describing the one subject. I wait until another scene is developed to add the other or additional characteristics befitting that scene instead of writing them all in one section. Unless the object is vital to the story or the center of the story. I only write one paragraph or less describing it. Yes, it’s very important in world building to fully describe your place to your readers but some go overboard. You don’t need to know there are ants of some alien species on the ground unless they’re dangerous and eat people. LOL!

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  4. One simple way to determine whether you’re overdescribing is to take the chapter or passage in question and record yourself reading it out loud. Give your brain a few hours rest, then play it back. Your ears will tell you much more accurately whether or not you need to kill a few of your little darlings, than would your eyes. Your brain tends to fill in the blanks when you’re reading your own words. I spent more than 40 years writing ads & commercials. And in all that time, I never, EVER saw an ad agency that allowed its writers to proofread their own work.

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  5. Eric…your attention to detail as you read fantasy or other types of novels, is a wonderful way of fettering out the good and the overdone, and it is going to make you a really great writer! Thank you for sharing!

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      1. Eric, don’t feel alone, I am a beginner too and didn’t have a glue how to write a fiction book. I know have 3 fiction novels published and each one gets a little better with practice. My career was in clinical medical research. KD 🙂

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  6. Some writers are still learning the difference between drafting and an edited, finished story where extra words are removed with surgical precision. Internet publishing has not helped…but practice and the passage of time most certainly does — unless you have a writing group…whose job it is to point these things out!

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