Too Much Description?

There's a point at which the description outweighs the plot, and it's just no fun to read. The cinematic equivalent would be too many establishing shots and not enough dialogue/action. In a game, that might look like more cutscenes than play time.

My question has usually been "how do I know when there's too much description in my stories?" I imagine I'm not the only one looking for the warning signs and not really being sure what those signs look like.


The windows allowed a faint breeze to circulate through the room, bringing with it the chill, wet smell of rain waiting overhead. Grey, diffuse light of an overcast day cast soft shadows on the red-gold hardwood, highlighting swaths of dust and black cat hair that had been missed last time the vacuum roared past the the desk. With a sigh, the young aspiring author, let her head fall back against the squeaky headboard and gazed up at an unresponsively blank ceiling. Exceedingly unhelpful. And rude, now that she thought about it. If the ceiling had been any sort of polite, then it would have given her at least an interesting cobweb to look at.


The answer, I think, is the same as it is for most questions - it depends. In this case, it depends on the pace of the piece being constructed. For example, if a fast-paced conversation or exciting romantic encounter is suddenly interrupted for some painstaking description of the main character's left shoe, that's bad pacing - not necessarily the fault of the description itself, but it's in the wrong place.


In the narrative example above, the description doesn't seem out of place or too long, even though it's a lengthy paragraph of nothing but description. This is because it's standing on its own, and sets its own pace. On the other hand, if it went something like...


"No, not that way!" The voice crackled through her headset. "On your left - your LEFT. There's that hill-"

"Vi!" Ash barked somewhere behind her, sounding frightened. He was sprinting, eyes wide with terror.

"WHAT are you DOING?!"

Violet skidded around a sapling, slingshotting herself back the way she'd come.

The space between them wasn't too great. Five strides at most. Well, very big strides, but she was running. Last year's dead leaves, trailing bramble vines trying to expand their territory, fallen branches from last week's storm. If she was careful, she would make it without falling on her face. If she wasn't...

"You're gonna get yourself killed!" The poor speaker distorted his voice until he sounded like a robot. "Those guys are all Level 10 and higher!"


Contrast this with:


No, not that way!" The voice crackled through her headset, spitting into her ear like an angry cat. "On your left - your LEFT. There's that hill-"

Violet had already obeyed, and for some reason listening and running at the same time wasn't something she was good at, even after all this time.

"Vi!" Ash barked somewhere behind her, sounding frightened. It was a distraction. It was a danger. This could get her killed. But she turned. there he was, sprinting, eyes wide with terror, a short sword in one hand and their supply bag in the other.

"WHAT are you DOING?!" Her headset was going to blow a fuse if he kept shouting at her like that. Violet squinted against the noise and skidded around a sapling, slingshotting herself back the way she'd come.

The space between them wasn't too great. Five strides at most. Well, very big strides, but she was running. Last year's dead leaves, trailing bramble vines trying to expand their territory, fallen branches from last week's storm. If she was careful, she would make it without falling on her face. If she wasn't...

"You're gonna get yourself killed!" howled Shelby, the poor speaker distorting his voice until he sounded like a robot. "Those guys are all Level 10 and higher!"


The difference isn't the context of the description, but rather the pace of the scene it's in. It still doesn't quite fit, and the pacing stumbles a little, but it doesn't stick out quite so much as it does in the first version.


And that's the thing, I think. Description is like the brakes in your care. The more description you apply, the slower the pace of your scene. The less description, the faster it goes. (Not because there's simply less to read but also because what there is to read, reads faster... if that makes sense.)

In a way, it all comes down to that. How fast should this scene be read, and how much am I putting in it? It seems a silly question - much too literal. But it's true, because reading is an action someone does by running their eyes over the words on a page (or a screen).


So there's my question for the day. Am I putting too much description in this scene, or not enough?

#Writing #Tips #Description

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