I recently finished a science fiction book that made me feel like I was wading through a hip-deep swamp of adjectives and adverbs. It was really unfortunate, because the excessive (and repetitive) use of descriptive words and phrases completely overwhelmed what was actually a rather interesting premise. I forged through just to see where the story would go, but what could have been an enjoyable read instead turned into a tedious and almost mind-numbing journey.
Now, to be fair, the overall writing wasn’t horrible. Not great, but not the worst ever written, and the premise itself was rather unique (as much as is possible in today’s writing world). But the overdone descriptions every time we walked into a different room, or changed to a different character in a different setting, almost had me skipping entire paragraphs. I’ve already met this woman before. Why do I care which pair of earrings she’s wearing today or what the pencil she’s using looks like? And I already knew about his bronzed, rippling muscles. They were described at length in the first chapter. I don’t need to hear about them every single time we see him. (Besides, bringing them up over and over again was starting to make me feel insecure.)
We all know description is important. Descriptive words and phrases help pull your reader into the story, help them “see” your characters and settings. When first introduced, descriptions of scenery and characters can sometimes make the difference between intriguing or boring your readers. But even then, too much description can actually bog down what would otherwise be a good read.
Give your readers enough to form a picture in their mind, but leave some of it to their imagination. This allows the reader to create details that could make the story more personal and memorable. Instead of telling me what Jon looks like tonight, from his jet-black hair and lightning bolt-shaped earring to the chains around his boots (and every thread, zipper, and tattoo in between), why not just say something like “Jon was in full punk regalia,” or something along those lines? Maybe offer a few tidbits about his appearance, but not an entire paragraph. After all, one reader’s idea of what constitutes punk might be different than another reader’s.
Leaving a few details open to personal interpretation allows the reader to picture Jon in their version of punk, and keeps them from having to remember what your idea of punk was. This is especially true if we’ve already been given a description of Jon earlier in the book. We don’t need to bring up the jet-black hair and fingernails over and over again. We get it. He’s punk (or Goth, or Emo, or whatever it is these days).
Of course, if some aspect of Jon’s appearance is going to be a used as a focal point, then it does need to be mentioned. For example, if one of the bar’s patrons starts giving Jon flack over his “cute little lightning bolt” or tattoo then we probably need to know that he has a lightning bolt-shaped earring dangling from his ear and a Hello Kitty tattoo on his left shoulder. Or, if an aspect of a character’s appearance gives us a little more info about their personality, then by all means, bring that up as well. Jenny might be extremely proud of herself for finding nail polish in that perfect “to die for” shade of red that totally matches the shoes she’s wearing to the dance.
But if it’s just an ordinary day, and they don’t play any real part of the story, some of the little details can be left to your readers’ imaginations. It will help tighten up your prose, as well as allowing your reader to have a more personal and enjoyable experience with your story.
So, how much description do you like in the stories you read? A lot or a little?