Descriptive Writing: How Much is Too Much?
Is there a golden rule for knowing when you've described enough?
Description is an incredibly important tool in writing, and it comes in many forms. To write a story with no description is difficult (though not impossible – there are certainly examples of dialogue-only microfiction), and so a certain level of descriptive writing is considered the standard or bare minimum. But where, exactly, does that standard or minimum actually lie? Is there such a thing as too much description? If so, how do you know when and when not to flex your descriptive chops?
I don’t think there’s any one right answer here, but there is certainly room for discussion and exploration. So, let’s dig in!
The Purpose of Description
As I said, there are many forms of description, and they all serve their own purpose. Obviously, some of that goes toward describing characters actions and carrying them through a scene. I won’t be talking about that sort of description too much here, since I think most will understand the basic mechanics of that element of writing. From what I’ve seen, when writers are unsure of how much description to use in their book, they’re usually talking about describing people, places, things, etc., not actions and events. A quick example:
The room Katie entered was sparsely decorated, with two armchairs and a low coffee table facing an unlit fireplace. Without a fire and with no overhead fixtures, the only sources of light were the windows framed by heavy drapes lining the wall opposite the hearth. It looked like the room might once have been an in-home library of sorts, but the built-in shelving was entirely bare and thick with dust. Motes danced in the pale sunlight. The whole space smelt musty and forgotten.
When you ask what the purpose of this description is, the obvious answer is that it sets the scene. And that’s true – but simplistic. It establishes an atmosphere, one that is quiet and maybe a little sad or creepy, depending on the broader context. We also get a glimpse at what Katie, the perspective character, might feel. She regards it as “forgotten”, indicating a sense of melancholy toward the space. We also learn a bit about the broader setting, since the comment about no overhead lighting indicates this is a world where electrical lighting is expected, and we even have potential foreshadowing. That this room once held a library could be important to the plot.
How Much is Too Much?
So this one short paragraph is doing a lot of things. But it’s also not the only way this room could have been described – another author might go into detail about the style and condition of the upholstery on the chairs, indicating how old the room might be and how long ago it fell into neglect. Or an author might have the narration comment on the poor décor choice and mention tacky wallpaper to show a particular mindset in their protagonist. And other authors could boil the description down to two or three neat, concise sentences, making the scene feel more clinical and impersonal.
A lot of this comes down to personal preference and style. Sometimes, descriptive writing is used primarily as a vehicle for emphasizing character voice and internal monologue, so the narrative might be littered with pop culture references or the character mentally asking themselves questions about what they’re seeing. Or description could be about the love of describing and meticulous attention to detail – look no further than J. R. R. Tolkien and his trees.
But genre also has a role to play here. Like with the aforementioned Tolkien example, adult high fantasy novels are likely going to be quite a bit more descriptive than YA contemporary romance, and – more notably – place different emphasis on what parts of the world they describe. For example, YA contemporary romance will probably involve a lot of description of characters’ outfits and physical appearance, but be lacking in the vivid descriptions of architecture or flora and fauna that is often found in high fantasy.
Similar to genre, the pacing of a story can affect how much and how often it describes. A slow, quiet romance is going to have plenty of time to set scenes and build atmosphere, and it kind of needs to in order to strengthen and emphasize its subject matter. But a fast-paced, on-the-edge-of-your-seat action plot is going to be sparser generally, with the exception of the occasional breather scenes intended to give readers a break.
So Is There A Rule of Thumb?
Unfortunately, as with most things writing-related, there is no golden rule or magic quota to hit in order for your book to contain the “right” amount of description. It depends a lot on what kind of story you’re writing and what kind of writer you are. The real key is to remain consistent within a particular book or series; nothing is more jarring to a reader than a book that loves flowery descriptions suddenly becoming terse and clinical, so there better be good reason for such a dramatic shift in style. Another tip is to have a trusted friend or beta reader look over your story and give you feedback. If the descriptions drag on, they can tell you, same as they can tell you if things feel too vague or they can’t picture your settings.
Overall, though, a lot of it comes down to trusting your gut and doing what feels right for you and your story.