There’s an ancient fable (as in, one I definitely did not just make up on the spot) wherein a young lad, foolish yet daring, seeks out an old, wise man for help.
Eventually (feel free to fill in here chapters of challenges, suffering, and brushes with death) he finds him. He collapses by the wise man’s feet and looks up at him with wide eyes.
“Answer me, wise man, for I have sought long and hard. How do I know how much description is too much and how much is too little? Where do I draw the line?”
The wise man, following in the footsteps of all wise men before him, raises a frail hand and slowly strokes his beard. “That’s a good question, my son. Fortunately, I know the answer.
“It’s all about intuition.”
For many writers, asking how to find the right balance between long and short descriptions is like asking how to write a good sentence or how to make sure your plot is interesting. Eventually, you just learn to be able to tell. The more experienced a writer you are, the less you’ll find yourself asking those questions.
It’s true, but it’s also annoyingly vague.
What do you do before you learn that intuition? Is there a general rule for where to draw the line?
The answer is: sort of.
There’s no substitute for intuition built from experience. But there is a trick you can use that will help.
To start, let’s see what too little description looks like.
Too Little Description
Say we’re writing about a character slowly making his way through a haunted mansion. Unbeknownst to him, a monster awaits below. If I used too little description, here’s how it might read.
I inched my way slowly through the haunted mansion, eventually reaching a flight of stairs. I descended them, trembling yet somehow driven to carry on, to continue. At the bottom was a small hallway, at the end of which was a door. I opened it—another door at the end. A voice inside me screamed that I should leave; this place chilled me to the bone. For some reason I couldn’t quite explain, I kept going. I made my way through another hallway, and two more after that. I hesitated at the last door, but by now, I was committed. I opened the door, and found myself face to face with a monster.
The monster reached for me. At the last moment, I dodged out of the way and ran for a window. It chased me for a while, but eventually I managed to escape through the window. It didn’t follow me into the sunlight.
Technically, the plot of the story is clearly outlined. A man makes his way through a haunted mansion, growing increasingly spooked by what he sees. But what does he see? He’s clearly terrified, but the lack of any description leaves us ignorant of what, exactly, scares him. Plus, the story is completely devoid of excitement.
We see his reactions, but we lack the ingredients to join him on his story.
Too Much Description
Now let’s see the reverse with the exact same story.
I step into the foyer of the mansion and pause, the light streaming through the heavy oaken door illuminating my surroundings as I look around. As I stand there, I find my eyes, almost as if against my will, drawn to the floor.
The walls and ceiling of the mansion are designed entirely from ornate wood; the floor, built from granite, offers the only glimpse of stone. As I gaze at the floor, held captive as if by chains, I feel a chill crawl down my back. The placing of the stones resembles no pattern I recognize—from my vantage point they clearly form a loose circle, yet as I stare at them I see traces of a triangle, and then a square, and soon I am sure I stare at a pentagram, the shapes twisting and blurring before my eyes, and I cannot decide whether I am witness to the works of a mad mind, twisted beyond logic, or the unfathomable brilliance of some superior intelligence, foreign and alien to me.
The granite is cracked and broken through with roots, and staring at them I have the strangest feeling, as if the roots are growing before my eyes, and they no longer resemble roots but hands, blackened and spindly, and they are reaching for me, reaching for me . . .
I wrench my eyes away, and the roots are roots once more.
In the center of the floor is a mural, made of dark blues and greens. It shows a faceless form, neither male nor female, dressed in a billowing robe, and behind the form are dark and ominous trees, not just blocking the sky but seeming to obliterate it. Yet there is something odd about this mural, and as I step forward I realize that I stare not at one mural but at eight, the original picture vanishing before my eyes to be replaced by eight new images; eight horrible images.
I am powerless now, helpless as my eyes become fixed to the images, and they seem to beckon to me, to grow larger before my eyes, until they’re all I can see, the light from behind dimming, disappearing as if it has somehow been swallowed. The first mural depicts a burning house, and as I glance at it I can feel the heat, hear the cackling of the flames--and I force my head to the side to gaze at the mural next to it, this one showing a raven in flight, a squealing mice caught in its talons; and the next mural shows a red-faced huntsman, axe poised over the neck of a fox; and the fourth features hordes of ants crawling over meat; and a wolf with bared, bloody teeth snarls at me from the sixth while a jackal howls from the seventh; and in the last there is a woman, all in black, weaving by a loom, and she is crying, and I realize that I am, too, and the light is gone and the house is gone and all that remains is the murals, spinning before my eyes, spinning, spinning . . .
OK, so I may have gotten carried away there.
On the one hand, that has everything the first option lacked. The first option didn’t show us why he was scared. This one showed us exactly why he was scared--in intense, meticulous detail.
On the other hand, nothing actually happened. Our protagonist hasn’t moved a single step yet. He hasn’t even finished examining the foyer. All he’s done is look at the floor. He still has to make it down the stairs, through five different hallways, and face the monster. At this pace, our protagonist will die of old age before that happens.
It’s not just a pacing issue. It’s also disorientating. Imagine if every single scene in every single page of your book gets treated to this level of detail. Your readers will constantly be jarred out of the flow of the story. Following up, “Your money or your life,” with three pages on the mugger’s clothes will disrupt any story.
Finding the Balance
So if too much jars you out of the story and too little doesn’t let the story begin, how do you find the balance?
That’s where the trick comes in. Simply put:
Describe scenes as the character sees them.
There isn’t a quantitative amount of description that’s “just right.” It all depends on what’s going on. If a man is being chased and passes by a statue, you can’t describe the statue in detail because that’s not what the character sees. He’s running for his life—he hasn’t got time to stop and admire a statue. At most, he'll spare it a glance, taking in only the most obvious details.
And that’s what you show the reader.
If your character, though, is standing in a museum and slowly analyzing the painting, then it makes sense to describe the painting in great detail—because that’s what he/she sees.
In other words, apply the show don’t tell rule to writing descriptions.
But there’s a catch. Simply switching descriptions to the viewpoint of the character won’t magically solve all your problems. After all, your character could be taking a slow tour bus into a foreign city, eyes wide as she gazes in awe at the foreign sights. If we were to describe everything she sees, you’ll end up with pages and pages of irrelevant details that just bog the story down.
You have to know how much to let your character see.
And that’s where intuition comes in.
Like I said, there’s no substitute for intuition. But generally, the best approach is to judge whether this description is carrying the story along or slowing it down. Does it add anything to the scene? If it wasn’t there, would anything be missing? These questions will help you decide what to keep and what to cut.
This mix of only describing what your characters see and knowing what to let your characters see will help you write descriptions that won’t jerk the reader out of the flow of the story, because they are the flow of the story. If the character stopped to analyze a painting, it’s because it was important to the character. It flows seamlessly into the events happening at the moment.
Whether or not this trick works as a one-stop solution from, here are some takeaways you can get from this post:
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.