Story Craft: Descriptions – Too Much or Not Enough?

Introduction: Writing in Drafts

All writers fall (loosely) into one of two categories when drafting:

They are either under-writers, meaning that they skim through the finer details in order to get to the main plot points with every intention of going back in and adding more later.

Or, they’re over-writers. They do the opposite of under-writers in that they write too much – they splurge on crazy amount of detail, write way more scenes than they need, and end up with something that then needs to be cut into shape.

Regardless of which one you are, it’s all fine – especially in the drafting stage.

As I have said many, many times before in the course of this blog: do what you need to do to finish the story.

Finish the draft. Even if it’s a mess. Just finish it, and then you can go back and clean it up the second/third/fourth time around.

Neil Gaiman compares going through a rough draft to stepping onto a battlefield after a cease-fire.

What was destroyed?

Who died?

Who lived?

What structures still stands?

What side won?

Were there even sides at all?

With the cold calculation of an experienced plastic surgeon, you begin to pick apart what is there already so you can piece it all back together in a way that makes it look nice.

It might take a couple of tries, but that’s why we call them drafts. You don’t need to get it right on the first or second go-round, but you do need to keep working at it until you’re at least somewhat satisfied with the end results.

Before I go on, I’d like to briefly discuss the topic of “drafts.” Depending on the comments I receive, I might end up writing a whole post on this topic alone. But for now, here’s some food for thought:

I’ve seen this term brought to question many times on Twitter by members of the #WritingCommunity. New writers are often scared of “doing something wrong,” so they turn to the online world of writers to ask for advice.

When the rough draft is done, what’s the best way to approach the next step? Should they heavily revise the existing draft, or starting a new one all together?

Honestly, it’s up to you.

The first thing you should do is read through what you have created.

Read it as if you were approaching it for the first time, as if you knew nothing about it going in and are discovering its secrets and flaws anew.

Then, ask yourself: Is the draft is solid enough to just need some cleaning up? Or, upon the read-through, did you realize you need to take the story in a completely different direction. Are there plot holes that require some serious-reworking of the existing story in order to solve? Is there a character you need to re-think or eliminate? Are there entire scenes that need to be scrapped/re-written/reorganized?

Depending on the amount of changes you feel you need to make, you can chose to either start fresh on a new document or dive into the old one with the intent of slowly ripping it to shreds from the inside out.

Personally? My first drafts are usually such a mess that I don’t even bother. I open up a black document and start from the beginning. I use the old one as reference, but I don’t stick to it religiously.

After the second draft is complete, I go through and do heavy revisions from there. The trick is to know when to stop tweaking/making changes, which is a post for another day.

Now, our main question: how do you begin to start cleaning up your rough draft?

Description (adding or cutting, depending on the kind of writer you are) is a good place to start.

Description: How Much is Too Much

Whenever I teach a creative writing group, the first thing I bring up (usually shortly after unpacking the useful-yet-still-slightly-problematic “show, not tell” rule of writing) is how writers need to be weary of what I call “The Tolkien Trap.”

Any writer of any genre can fall into this Trap, not just those who write fantasy. However, I will say fantasy authors are more likely to fall into the Trap due to the expectations within the genre in regards to world-building.

Warning: Unpopular Opinion Ahead

Modern consumers of larger-than-life entertainment are at least aware of the Lord of the Rings movies, if not die-hard fans. The popularity of the movies in the early 2000s brought even more attention to the break-through book series, and inspired many young readers and writers to seek out reprints of the now 50-some-year-old story.

Tolkien brought an underground sub-genre into the eye of popular media. We have him to thank for Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and many, many other iconic fantasy and magical stories.

But since Tolkien was the first of his kind, there were few things for him to go off of, to learn from, and to be weary enough to avoid.

I’m beating around the bush here, and it’s mostly because I really don’t want to insult Grandpa Tolkien.

I’m going to do it anyway, though.

here it goes…..

The Lord of the Rings books are badly written.

There. I said it. You can start hurling your bricks and rotten tomatoes at me BUT BEFORE YOU DO, please hear me out.

The Tolkien Trap: Explained

The Tolkien Trap refers to the cursed over-descriptions. Something that good ole’ Grandpa Tolkien did a lot in his books about hobbits and elves and evil jewellery.

Something that you, dear writer, should not imitate.

I don’t need to read four pages describing a tree.

I don’t want to read 10 pages describing a mountain.

And I really, really don’t want 20 pages talking about a staircase.

And guess what? Tolkien did all of that and more.

And the worst part is he set a trend. Other authors – contemporary fantasy authors – have gone off and done the exact same thing.

Christopher Paolini, author of The Inheritance Cycle (yeah, remember him?) followed in Grandpa Tolkien’s footsteps almost to a T.

Twenty pages describing a mountain range? Seriously, dude? And don’t even get me STARTED on how he wrote his female characters…

In short, if you’re describing a single item in multiple pages that can be summed up in a simple sentence or even a phrase, go with the latter. Your BETAs, Agent, Editor, and audience will thank you for it.

A Secret in Good Writing

There is no quicker way to lose a reader’s interest than over-describing something. Even if that something is important, less is still better.

Yes, we want to know the smell and feel of the air, the sound of crunching leaves beneath heavy boots, the mist obscuring the gentle, up-hill slope of the path we’re following from view.

I want to know about the unique shape of the castle towers, of the shades and hues of the dresses worn by the ladies (and gentlemen) of the court.

I want you to describe the details of the monster’s you’ve created so I can see them, too.

But if you’re looking up other words for “tall” or “enormous” in the thesaurus because you’ve used up all the synonyms you know, then you probably need to go back through and do some editing.

We know that mountains are big. It’s in the same itself. You don’t need to spend too much time telling us how big it is – it bores your readers to tears and takes away from the story.

If you’re going to spend so much time describing something, then that something better be pretty damn important and original. Or else we (your readers) won’t care and will start to fall asleep.

Over-Describing Characters

Overly-detailed descriptions of character appearance and facial expression is unnervingly common in a lot of contemporary YA. It gives the genre a bad rap and is desperately something we need to fix.

First person perspective is favored in most YA. And 9/10, our narrator is standing in front of a mirror during the first chapter and she (it’s almost always a she) takes three and a half pages to describe how her long blonde hair falls perfectly over her shoulders, how her blue eyes sparkle in the sunlight, how she has “curves in all the right places” and how with just the right amount of cosmetics, she’s learned to draw attention to her best and most attractive facial features.

Please dear god, do not do this.

Ever.

I love YA, but having to slog through something like this MAKES ME WANT TO DIE. It also usually makes me put the book down and not pick it back up again. Odds are, your teen readers are not the beautiful blondes with curves in all the right places. They’re lives are tormented by people like the girl you just discribed, and they don’t want to read about them.

So please. Please please please. Don’t make perfect characters like this the focal point of your story. Or at least, don’t spend so much time describing them this way.

With character description, you want to point out the features that are the most important, the most distinctive.

And if you decide to focus any attention on the eyes, they better be multi-colored or glowing or pitch black or something that makes them really, truly unusual.

We (and I do mean “we” here, cuz I do this too) YA writers want to go for the dark poetics, the stuff teens really love. And for some reason, our fall-back is always to talk about eyes:

“There was sadness in his eyes;”

“A wall went up behind her eyes,”

“Their eyes spoke of stories they couldn’t begin to find the words to tell.”

Pretty, right?

But let me ask you this:

When you’re talking to someone, how much attention do you actually pay to their eyes?

Seriously.

Maybe you’re interacting with someone who’s eyes are more noticeable, but usually? You’re reading everything else in their body language. As the name suggests, body language is made up of so much more than just the eyes and the facial expression.

The twist in the corner of their mouth; the way their shoulders tense; how frequently they use their hands when talking.

Body language, tone of voice, and word choice are all how we get a read on people.

Hate to break every poetic heart here, but very rarely are eyes real portals to the soul. If there is something unusual about the eyes, and it’s relevant to the plot later on, then mention it once or twice.

After that, let it drop.

Happy Medium?

But Rebecca, you guys might be beginning to whine, how much is too much? How will I know if I’m putting enough description in, or too much?

Description is important. It is. It makes the story all the more real, and helps create that amazing feeling all reader seek, which is to feel as though the real world has fallen away and only the characters in your story matter.

I mean, isn’t that what we all want our readers to experience when they pick up a copy of our story?

I do want to hear about what your characters look like, what kinds of clothes they’re wearing, how they perceive their environments.

I want to know when the air grows thick with tension, when something seems unsettling before a big reveal, or if a character’s body language is suspiciously off.

Descriptions are part of a good story. The elitist, holier-than-thou snobs in my writing classes in college didn’t like description, but you know what? They’re not the ones in the middle of writing three novels, they’re not keeping a successfully growing writing blog, they’re not reading over 100+ books in a year.

Nor are they here, trying to learn and grow more even not that their higher education career is complete.

The holier-than-thou writing snobs can go fuck themselves.

So, please don’t avoid description all together. But remember there are limits to how much time you should be spending on the details, even if those details become important later.

After all, you don’t want to give too much away too soon, right? It’s not fun for your readers if you’re practically giving away the big secret by spending so much time describing the sword that’s been hidden from the kingdom for centuries that, oh, hey, happens to look exactly like the one strapped to that rouge soldier’s back.

Make it a game. Have fun with it.

It’s All Up to The Reader

As I said before, when it comes to discription, less is often more.

Your readers will gloss over the physical description of your characters or the places they visit – and their imaginative space is going to do something completely different than what yours did. They’re going to subconsciously change things; they’re going to add details you might not have thought of, or omit details you purposefully included.

And that’s perfectly okay.

That’s the beauty and joy and wonder of reading. The words on the page – your words – are merely a suggestion as to what is occurring in the story. The rest is up to your reader to interpret.

In the end, how you envisioned things really doesn’t matter, because it will be up to the individual reader to decide how they picture and perceive the actions taking place and the characters involved.

I hope this takes some of the pressure off of you who feel like you have to kill yourselves in order to include every last scrap of detail in order to make your story “the best it can be.”

When You Are Unsure, Here Are Some Rules

As the writer, it is your job to piece together enough clues to guide to reader’s imagination. The trick is finding that happy medium between not enough clues, and too many.

Personally, I try to keep my descriptions between 3-5 distinct details, details that set characters and places apart from one another and are easily recognizable by the reader should they be mentioned in passing later.

They don’t have to be anything too crazy (again, unless you’re dealing with a character that has, I don’t know, tentacles or something), but they should be just enough to create an outline that your reader will then fill in.

If the character tall, short, average height?

Do they have short, close-cropped hair or is it long and wild?

Do that walk funny, perhaps with a bounce or a limp or a swagger?

You don’t need to describe every detail of their face, but if you do want to focus on the face, try to focus on features that are unique: a scar, a twitch in the upper lip, the way they bite the inside of their cheek when they’re thinking.

If you’re attempting to build tension between potential love interests, I would focus on how they interact with or around one another than relying on visual descriptions alone (perfect example of “show, not tell” in action). I avoid using terms like “beautiful” or “handsome” or “ugly” unless I’m describing creatures or things that are not human – a faery queen, a gnarled tree-stump, an old but well-kept Victorian manor house.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – we don’t need to think a character is beautiful in order for a character to think so. We also don’t need to know too much of their beauty in order to understand that another character has romantic and/or lustful feelings towards them.

Again, put in enough detail for an outline, to form a strong suggestion as to what you are picturing. It’s more fun for you and for your reader when you have a good mix of descriptions of your own imagination and things that are more open for individual interpretation.

In Conclusion

Again: if you’re not sure if you have too much description or not enough, look back at what you have.

Would a reader be able to pick out this character from a crowd by just one or two of the features you list?

Are the features you list important/telling to their personality?

In books, you can tie a character’s personality to their physical features – and sometimes, you can do it ironically.

Perhaps the creepy old man who lives in the house down the street actually spends his days rescuing stray cats, nursing them back to health and then helping a local animal shelter find good homes for them.

Perhaps the dashing stranger will actually be the one to initiate the killing blow, even though we were all sure he was the good-hearted prince who went missing in the prologue.

There are lots of possibilities, and lots of fun you can have when it comes to writing descriptions – when they’re done properly.

Remember: Description needs to add to the story. If you feel (or if your BETAs comment) that your story feels like it’s lacking, perhaps you should revisit some of the world-building. If your description seems to be more “extra,” then it might be time to trim some stuff down in order to best focus on what is important/what you can use later to further that character’s place in the story.

As with all things writing, it comes down to the individual writing style. Whatever you chose, however you chose it, is what should work best for you. While there is no set formula that will help you write that best-seller, there are lots of things you can do to continue to improve your writing practice.

Thanks for reading! Please follow, like, and share this piece on social media if you liked it or found it helpful – you never know if someone else will, too!

Do you have an embarrassing story about your first attempt at writing? Or have you read books with bad use of description? Do you have questions or ideas that I didn’t mention in this post, but you’d like to get out there? Then please, share them with us in the comments below!!

Also, I will be on vacation all next week 6/8-6/15 and therefore will NOT be posting a blog next Monday. But you’ll be hearing from me again soon, and when you do, I hope to have some exciting news for you all!

Thank you again, and see you in two weeks!

And as always, keep writing.

R.F.

Published by Rebecca

Freelance content writer for eco-conscious businesses and non-profits. Lover of books, animals, and trees. YA fiction writer with THREE on-going WIPs.

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