1. Lady Amalthea
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    Lady Amalthea Member

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    How much description is too much description?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Lady Amalthea, Sep 3, 2012.

    I was wondering how much could I describe in a setting without annoying the readers. I am a great fan of nineteenth century adventure novels, eventhough they are full of cliches and overdone themes (I love Alexandre Dumas, who basically set the standard for "feuilleton" novels). In this kind of literature, setting descriptions are done in extreme detail - size, colors, clothing, fabrics, material, etc. If anyone has ever read "O Guarani", you will know that Jose de Alencar (Brazilian Romantic author) spends the first ten pages of this novel just describing the setting of Dom Mariz's estate and the forest that surrounds it -- now, that is an extreme example, but you get the idea.

    Contemporary adventure/romance novels follow the action rule, "show don't tell", what have you. As I am writing in a nineteenth-century-like fantasy setting, I am having trouble balancing things out. So, if I describe the fabrics and embroidery details of my character's clothing, the inner workings of steam machinery, or the different smells and noises in a marketplace, will I be boring my readers to death?
     
  2. ...
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    ... Member

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    not if you're educating them.

    I suppose if it flows well then you can get away with much more description. In an historical setting I feel it is important to have studied and to know what smells were around in those days... people read these types of novels as a means of education as well as entertainment. It depends on flow... if you find yourself getting bogged down with description then you are probably writing too much. If it flows right onto the page then readers should breeze through it barely noticing a thing.
     
  3. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    When people stop forgetting the plot for the purpose of reading all of the description, it's too much. That's one thing I can't stand: when I'm reading a book, and the plot just seems to trail off as the author/writer tries to explain a bunch of crap.
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The first thing you have to remember is that literature is a reflection of its society. As society evolves, so does its literature, and so must anyone who wants to be a part of that literature. So what worked in 19th or early 20th century literature will not work now. Today's readers (at least in the US and similar societies) are pressed, pressured, bombarded by data and eminently distractable. If you want them to read your story, you have to fight for their attention. That means you have to give the reader information (s)he wants to have in order to better understand your story.

    The great danger, especially with historical or technical fiction, is that the writer does so much research that (s)he feels the need to cram as much of the fruit of that research into the work as possible. This usually translates into infodumps. The research that we do is because we (writers) need that information, not because the reader necessarily needs it.
     
  5. J. Blake
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    J. Blake Member

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    Long descriptions were fine for the 19th century era, but today that just won't fly. Its a bore to read, and strikes me as oddly insecure, like you're trying too hard to create the image for the reader. I can almost garauntee you nobody cares about the fabric designs on the clothes you're characters are reading. They care about the story

    The key is balance. Give the readers the KEY characteristics about this place, this person, etc. This way you've given us a foundation, a mood, and from there the reader can use his/her imagination to fill in the rest, which is always more rewarding than having it given to us. Likewise, showing us the mechanics of steam machinery is fine, but give us the key points and keep it moving. Don't stop the story to give us an essay about it, because (like I said) nobody really cares that much.
     
  6. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If your description evokes a certain mood/atmosphere that draws the reader, I don't see why not. And look at Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - the author spends like 1-2 pages describing businesses I remember! Oh it bored me to tears, but hey, it's a global hit so it shows that there are indeed people out there who love this kinda detail. Just make sure your readers know why they have to know these details, and make sure your detail is unique. You don't wanna describe 3 times in full detail every last embroidered rug hanging from the wall - but if you're only describing one particular rug, and then you describe the rest of the room in detail, that could be ok.

    For myself, however, I hate excessive detail. But you'll always get haters, and you'll get lovers. I think as long as it's flowing rather than there just for the sake of being there, you're fine. You can always go back and delete later.
     
  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not a fan of long descriptions if they're only there to satisfy the author's love of words. Descriptions have a purpose - to set a mood, to delve into a character's thoughts/emotions, to set up the oncoming action - but they should serve that purpose and not go overboard. Granted, some genres allow more description than others, and sometimes descriptive passages can be used to 'calm' the reader after an especially harrowing scene. But look at why you have the description and whether or not you've achieved the goal or gotten lost in the words.
     
  8. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I'm reading, I find that sometimes I can be entranced by long descriptions. Other times I can find myself tuning out after a paragraph of description. It depends on how well it's written.
     
  9. tlm89
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    tlm89 New Member

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    I find it boring to read and write huge chunks of description. I prefer straight-to-the-point descriptions. If there's a vase on the table, tell me there's a vase on the table. Don't go on and say there's a tall, narrow vessel atop the mahogony, shining coffee table, harbouring a dozen red, thorny flowers matching the one on its porcelain exterior.

    I'm a huge fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, but the one thing that annoyed me about the series was Martin's constant repetitive descriptions. He would waste (in my opinion) so many words by telling the readers exactly what was on the table during each feast, or what each character was wearing every time he introduced them. It made me very aware of the writer's presence - and that almost ruined it for me.

    To summarise, i would enjoy reading a maximum of half a page (novel-sized) of description, providing the thing being described is significant to the story i.e. a new location, a character with an unusual appearance.

    When i'm writing, i prefer to drip-feed descriptions. e.g. when my character walks into a room, I'll provide the reader with the main points right away (if it's windowless, if it's dark, if it's high-ceilinged), and then drip-feed smaller details throughout the scene. E.g. "Max walked over to the table and picked up a photo frame."
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'd take a look at something published nowadays that most resembles what your going for and check out
    how long there descriptions are and then maybe try an experiment describe something
    till there's no tomorrow and no limit and then see if you can get it under two paragraphs.

    Personally, I like some long descriptions as long as the book isn't bombarded with all long
    descriptions - I like it best when the writer picks and chooses.
     
  11. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with your point, however, drip-feeding description can have the adverse effect of having things just materialise out of thin air for the character's (and the writer's) convenience.

    Having said that, this greatly amused me :D Well said.
    I think the problem with description like that is that there's no need for such flowery language. Better would be "The sun reflected off the crystal vase. In it was a single, wilting rose." - for me, that falls into the category of "description" but it says a lot more than the narrow vessel atop the shiny coffee table because it creates a mood, even though, technically, my line actually tells you less real details than the purple prose version.
     
  12. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    Agree with Ed. Different times. Excessively descriptive passages in 19th century lit were appropriate, or at least worked, because it was one of the few ways to communicate imagery. Cameras didn't exist until basically the 1900's when the Brownie became a hit. Before that it was glorified pinholes and daguerreotypes. But it's different now -- pictures, moving images, this is what we know, what we grew up on. That is why you see a shift in the style of modern prose. Leaner, little, if any, description.

    Also, and I think this just comes with experience and skill, but the tone and mood of a story, even the word choice, can produce images. They function as catalysts for the reader, and the reader brings a lot of his experience to the work.
     
  13. FirstTimeNovelist91
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    FirstTimeNovelist91 Senior Member

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    I find that most books published today aren't super flowery in the description department.

    I think it gets to be too much when it distracts from the main story, or in some cases, I forget what the chapter was about.
     
  14. Program
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    "Too much description" is a quality, not a quantity, so it cannot exactly be measured. It's subjective.

    In addition, it would be more helpful to provide an excerpt, rather than a list of things your describe. Maybe an somewhat similar analogy to what you are asking would be a construction company saying to a customer, "So, if I put in windows, doors, staircases and a porch, will you be satisfied?" The answer the customer will give is "How would I know?" because he can't see the finished product. If the construction company does incorrect things, such as putting the windows where the doors go and the doors where the windows go, the product is not good. But if it puts the windows and doors in properly, chances are the customer will be more satisfied. If you describe it elegantly, it'll be a great product, but if you trip along the way and don't patch up the wounds, the product may not be so great.

    Still, an excerpt would be like showing a picture of one of the sides of the house to the customer. He won't know if it's okay until he sees a picture of the whole house. In the end, the construction company needs to figure out if their work is okay or not. Similarly, it'll mostly be about the choices you make, and although people of this forum can provide feedback for an excerpt, I don't think anyone can really give you a definite answer of "did you use too much or too little description" unless you provide everything - which is discouraged on this site.
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    37.251 is fine. 37.252 is too much.
     
  16. maidahl
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    maidahl Banned

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    ah.^ Can you elaborate?

    edit: i looked up your numbers? I thought you were being funny. But I don't think you're funny now. I feel stupids. Can you explain when you're back online. kthanx
     
  17. Baz the WarriorDreamer
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    Baz the WarriorDreamer Member

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    As many have said, I find there needs to be enough so that the readers create a strong image in their minds, if you cannot picture the most unimaginative person not knowing what this room looks like, you haven't done your job. At the same time, you shouldn't bore them with it, it cannot take you out of the story and the description should never become the story itself. So long as you and your readers know or have a good idea of what you are dealing with, it should be fine.

    Also write description depending on your scene. I find more darker and heavier scenes need more description wheras lighter ones do not need as much.
     
  18. maidahl
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    maidahl Banned

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    ^Very helpful. Thanks!
     
  19. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    LOL @ Cogito's correct answer
     
  20. Lady Amalthea
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    Lady Amalthea Member

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    This is an excellent reply, thank you. I struggle constantly with "digesting" all of my research and making it feel natural when I write. It's a constant learning process.

    I haven't read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But it's good to know that not every contemporary novel reads like a videoclip (a succession of quick images without much depth to them).

    As for the other replies, I am not a native English speaker. If "too much" is an expression used only for countable or quantifiable nouns, what other expression should I choose in order to say what I mean? How would I phrase it? OK, what I really meant was: "Would it be acceptable to have dense description in a contemporary novel if said novel is portraying a nineteenth-century-style society?" I myself like long descriptions and I'm not trying to please every one - impossible - but I was wondering if it would be effective.

    Actually, I think this pretty much sums it up. Thank you.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It really depends on your readership. Some people love lots and lots of description and frankly don't care a bit about the plot (but the description has to be incredibly good). Others just want the plot to keep moving and see all description as unnecessary distraction (but the plot has to be incredibly good). Most work is pitched somewhere in between. All we can do here is give our own personal preferences (and mine changes day to day), but they won't translate to general rules. Write a level of description that you like, then try it on your target readers.
     
  22. IMearthbound
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    IMearthbound New Member

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    I agree with the above quote. If you are educating your readers to a point so while they are getting an image of what you want to convey to them, you're pretty much knocking out two birds with one stone.
    You can be descriptive in your writing, but if it's long winded, your potential readers might not agree and may get discouraged. Also, in my opinion, if you can tie to other features, such as the emboirdery's coloring being similiar to the person wearing it, pulling in other aspects, it gives the reader more than just that object to focus on - a greater picture to imagine...but I personally enjoy enough detail to relay what the author wants me to know about that object or person but still leaves enough of a "dessert" to allow my right brain to imagine a little more on it's own..but then again, it might just be me.

    -A
     

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