To describe, or not to describe…Is that the question?

Have you ever read a book where you find yourself skimming or even completely skipping over paragraphs because there is just too much description?  I don’t know if this is a personal thing for me or if other people have the same problem.  When I first started writing my book, I kept that in mind.  But I think I went to the extreme and didn’t describe anything (well, almost anything).  After a few readers pointed this out, I realized I needed to go back and change quite a bit.  So I did.  However, I still didn’t end up with a book full of beautiful imagery and descriptions of scenes that took your breath away.  Why write what I often find boring?  Besides, my book always leaned commercial, not literary.

As I read through the finished manuscript, I hoped it was a good balance between too much and too little.  But I was still wondering.  And then the other day I was reading a post by Kristin Cashore (Graceling and Fire — which if you haven’t read, you really should).  In the post, she was responding to a question on how she writes particular scenes.  The thing that stood out to me was this:  “Don’t feel the need to over-describe; resist the urge to explain.” 

Readers are smart, they can fill in the gaps.  And they usually fill in those gaps exactly how they want to, and in ways they like.  Haven’t you ever talked to someone about a book you’ve both read and you each visualize a scene differently?  Is that because the author didn’t describe it well?  Not usually.  People just fill in the gaps.  Chances are that even if each reader pictured things differently, they both got the feeling of the scene the same (at least if it was written well).  And isn’t that the most important?

Now, I’m not saying to cut all description out of books.  You need to have feeling, emotion, characters who grow and change.  And you need to have a concept of place, setting, etc.  I’ve resolved this myself with having one or two unique things in every setting that stand out.  Maybe it’s a smell.  Maybe it’s one particular feature of the landscape.  Maybe it’s what people are doing around the mc.  But, at least to me, that gives structure to the scene without describing every detail. 

When my beta readers get back to me, I’ll be interested to see what they have to say about this topic.  Maybe I’ll find myself going back and adding more description.  Who knows?

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “To describe, or not to describe…Is that the question?

  1. I agree with you that we don’t need to describe every single detail. But details are important to me–I’m somewhat of an old-fashioned writer, and if you check out 19th centruy novels, it’s filled with description, and I love that. But that’s preference. Sometimes they do overdo it and have pages after pages describing how one room looks like.

    You should check out Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. His description is sooooooooo brief, and yet the whole world is created in your mind by one sentence. It’s truly amazing and he was the author who inspired me to be more short and concise with my detailing

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  2. I know what you mean Shari- I always skip through those looong loooong descriptions in books and they annoy me a bit too! I mean, I’m not stupid, if you give me some original, well thought description, I can picture it myself. I don’t like to know everything but I want to imagine it as well 🙂

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  3. I completely agree with your post. Have I skimmed or skipped paras where the author decides to get overly detailed with descriptions? Oh heck ya. Try about half of the book The Host. Bleh. Like I need pages and pages of descriptions of the inside of a cave? Umm…I’ve seen caves. Even been in a few. But SM’s attempt to describe even the most minute details about what she wanted us to see left me scratching my head and actually had the opposite affect…I couldn’t visualize what she wanted me to see! This also happened a few times in The Mortal Instrument series, but because Cassandra wrote such an awesome story where the characters were so kick ass, I was totally able to forgive her.

    I too have tried really hard to have a balance where I give just enough information/description to the reader to have an idea of where the scene is taking place, but allow the reader to “fill in the gap” as you say. I would hate to think that someone would want to skim any part of my hard written work.

    Great post Shari!

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  4. Great post, Shari. I heartily agree. I remember reading somewhere (maybe in his memoir On Writing where there so many gems) Stephen King saying that he rarely described his characters but preferred to let his readers shape them in their own minds as they wished and I thought, How fantastic! I definitely err on the side of less is more. I enjoy writing and reading passages of description but can often lose interest if they go on too long. I suspect many readers can. It is a fine line.

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