To describe, or not to describe?

After my last post about knowing your scene, reader Shari contacted noting the trap of over-describing scenes. She said:

[As a reader] I need to see the pieces of the environment that are critical to the story but the rest of it, my own brain ‘paints’ for me.

I couldn’t agree more! Less is indeed more. If I have given the impression otherwise then it is because I was unclear. Hence I will clarify and expand upon my position. In my post I wrote:

“…prompters that would help in constructing a location … in the writer’s … senses.”

The intention of my post was all about the author knowing the scene, so that they could describe it to the reader, not that they necessarily would. At the end of the post I flagged that briefly:

“Note that you wouldn’t put all of these into the final text, or even answer them all. … it is important for an author to know what a location looks like.”

So just to restate: I don’t believe every scene should be described to the reader. I tend to describe very little (sometimes, too little). There’s a balance between allowing the reader to ‘paint’ the scene themselves (paint by numbers), and giving them an entirely blank canvas.

HOWEVER, to thine own writing style be true. If there is anything I’ve learned in the last months it is that the judging of writing quality is a subjective matter. Beauty is in the eye of beholder, and the difference between style, quality and quagmire is the perception of the reader. Personally if I’m reading something too descriptive I skip sentences; others love a detailed description. When writing you won’t be able to please everyone.

How this works in practice (for me)

For a new location I’ll write a description in my notes; it could be a sentence or a few paragraphs. This is purely to orient me. (Bare in mind that the time of day or season will alter how the location looks).

When I’m writing the text of the story I might transfer a single adjective or a few sentences from my notes into the story text, but the vast bulk of it will never see ‘print’. In my notes I’ll mark that text in a different colour to show that it is now fact in my story world (and should not be contradicted).

How descriptive to be

I use the following factors to determine how much description I should add:

  • Is this the first time in this location? If I am going to describe a location it will be the first time I use it. Unless the location changes substantially I won’t describe it again.
  • How frequently used is this location? The more frequently a location features the more likely I will describe it.
  • Is the location interesting or something readers would be unfamiliar with? It’s more important to describe the Magical Hallows than an ordinary bedroom.
  • Does anything important happen here? If there’s going to be throw-down brawl in the room, describing the general layout is important.
  • Would description derail the plot tension? If the description pulls the reader from immersion of the plot, then don’t describe it.
  • Would the character notice it? Some characters will be more observant, more detail-oriented. One of my hibernating projects Deadly Addictions is crime genre – the detective should notice in detail items around a room; to not do so would be out-of-character and implausible.

Thanks Shari for the feedback, discussion and the expansion that your comments have had in this post.

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