Description

How do you know when it’s too much or too little?

I usually err on the side of ‘not enough’. I work while I revise to make certain the world, the character, and the actions are shown enough for the reader to make sense of it. Sometimes I keep too much of it in my head in the first draft.

There are exercises to work on description, but they don’t change what I do as I write. I’m getting better at finding the line where the descriptions are needed, but I never want to put in too many.

I’ve never been a fan of purple prose.

When I find those overflowing, descriptive passages, they’re in other people’s work. It can be very pretty, except when it gets in the way of the story. It’s so hard to tell someone, “You know, I don’t think this is working for your story. What’s actually happening here?”

I get the “show, don’t tell” references, but precious few references tell you how to go about that. And they don’t say a lot for when you think you’re showing it all, only to find out you’re on a tangent that doesn’t advance the plot.

Wait, they do have a saying for it: Kill your darlings.

It doesn’t tell you how. Or where. Or why. Is it measurable between dialogue beats, narration, emotional response of character to events? I doubt it will surprise anyone to say I’m reading a book about it to understand more and critique better, partly because I can’t just say, “This is the point where my mind wanders away. Fix it.”

Writing is such a harsh business. We have to be critical to each other, critical of our own work, and submit to the critique of editors and agents we may never meet.

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2 Comments

  1. Dawn Embers said,

    13 July 2010 at 14:02

    Those are some good points. Even when people try to explain the rules “show, don’t tell”, etc, they don’t seem to tell enough to make it easier to understand.

    I don’t do a lot of description, or much at all, as I focus on character, what they’re doing and saying. So, when I revise, I may have to add some details along the way. I have two books on description but haven’t used them much yet.

  2. ransomnoble said,

    13 July 2010 at 15:50

    True. You’re about on the same side of the fence I am with description. Maybe we’ll figure it out eventually.


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