Too much description can be… too much

I have trouble writing scenes.  Usually I feel that my description of the setting is too lean.  I like to let people use their imaginations, but I don’t think I give them enough to work with.

That is a far cry from how I used to write.  When I first started writing I was always trying to paint beautiful pictures that flew on wings of purple prose.  I thought I needed to be both poetic and thorough to be a good writer.  Somewhere along the way (during my writing course, I think) I did a complete 180 degree turn and went minimal.

Which way is right?  Looking at the writing I’m doing now I would say that neither is the right choice.  Neither method of writing accomplishes what I need it to.  Overwriting leaves me feeling like I’m wading through molasses while writing too little leaves me confused.  I need to find the middle ground.

It can be a hard place to find unless you practice but there are a few things you can do that will help.

To identify and reduce overwriting a scene look for a few clues:  (1) have you described more than a handful of items in the scene (hint, lots equals bad), (2) is every descriptive element important to the story (for example is it important to talk about the birds singing if all it does is add ambience?), (3) do you find that you are describing ever move a character makes (and where he/she makes it?).  I know I’ve done all three and been especially guilty of number 3.  I’ve found that when I start with the stage direction (describing every move), the writing becomes slow and cumbersome.  That’s my cue to cut past it.

Too little description can be identified easily too.  I know if I’m reading something and I start to feel too rushed, it’s usually because there isn’t enough meat to the writing.  Usually the addition of some beats in the dialogue and a bit more description of the surroundings fixes that right up.

Even if the writing is beautifully done with vivid description that augments the story, there is something to consider:  many readers today are used to quick moving scenes.  If the description slows the story at all the reader loses interest.  That happened with a book I finished reading recently.

I loved the way the author painted her scenes; everything was so vivid and alive I couldn’t wait to get to the next scene and live it.  I passed that book on to my daughter.  Her reaction?  Meh!  “It didn’t really grab me,” she said.  Different generation, different expectation for the book.

I also read a portion of a story the other day, again with beautiful imagery.  Every color was vivid, every movement of the protagonist richly described… and I was thoroughly tired by the time I finished reading.  The story was very interesting, I just don’t think I have the energy to read 700 pages of it.

So, to summarize, remember the following to give your scenes enough punch to keep them interesting but not too much to make them tedious:

  • only describe the elements of the scene that pertain to the story;
  • do NOT describe every action a character makes;
  • if the story seems to be too fast, add beats to dialogue and description to other passages;
  • if the story seems to slow, cut what doesn’t add to the story.  If necessary, cut entire passages and cut to the next scene.

I hope that helps you out; I know that since I’ve adopted this approach I’ve been happier with my writing.

Personal Update

No news yet on my story submissions.

Rewrite of fantasy novel going well.  I’ve exceeded 10,000 words and have submitted the first 3 chapters to Critters.  If you happen to be a member, keep an eye for “The Goddess Renewed” the week of November 5 and send me some feedback.

I’ve begun plotting my NanoWriMo book.  I think I have an interesting twist to get it started.  Something the new media community will relate to.


Have a fantastic week!


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