Finding the right amount of description can be a tricky thing.
Too little and the story won’t feel real. Too much and the reader starts to skim.
Either way, we lose the reader’s attention. And once lost, it’s hard to get back.
So, we want to keep our readers focused on the story by finding the proper balance of description.
Not too much or too little.
A good rule of thumb is only to tell what is unique or necessary for the reader’s understanding.
Description should accomplish at least one of these four things:
Describe something unique to the setting
Readers can imagine commonplace settings with little to no prompting.
A city is a city. A desert is a desert.
We can imagine the bustle of traffic or crowds of people pressing against each other. Never-ending sand dunes or the hot crusted earth.
The picture in our minds might differ depending on our experiences. But the concepts are familiar enough to conjure an image nonetheless.
However, if we list every detail of a setting, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. No way to resonate with what they already know.
Whereas if we limit our description to what’s unique, our setting becomes focused on what makes it special rather than what most of us take for granted as normal.
Readers become more immersed in the story when all they must do is picture a familiar setting and tack on a few details to imagine it.
Rather than skimming over a laundry list of details they already know or can’t picture and missing the important bits.
That doesn’t mean you can go overboard in an unfamiliar setting just because it’s unique, such as one in a fantasy or science fiction novel.
If you do, you’ll still face the problem of readers skimming because you overwhelmed them with too much information.
After all, it’s a lot easier to skip ahead rather than process something you can’t picture because it’s too unfamiliar.
It’s best to keep it simple and supply only as much as the reader needs to understand the world.
Three to four details are more than enough to paint a picture in most cases and plenty for the reader to handle at one time.
You can always add more detail later when it becomes important to the story.
Provide details relevant to the character
People never notice every detail around them.
If we did, we would quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer number of minute details that have no importance to us, or we could care less about.
Instead, we only notice things that matter to us.
If we were watching commercials, I would notice new movies and fast food, while you might notice the cars or store deals.
I walk in a room and notice artwork and how cramped it is. You might notice cleanliness and a big screen TV.
It all depends on where your interests are, your background growing up, and your life experiences.
It can also depend on the events taking place at that moment.
If you’re in a battle for your life, you’re more likely to look for things to defend yourself with than you are to notice your favorite book lying on a nearby table.
Or if you’re at work, say stocking shelves in a store, and a customer walks up to you, you’re less likely to notice her pretty necklace than that scarf peeking out of her purse with the tag still on it.
We all see things through a different lens. Focus on what’s important to the character at that moment and leave the mundane to the imagination.
Show the characters interacting with the setting
Beyond any unique details and what the character will focus on, we have the plot and how the setting will affect the flow of the story and the paths of the characters.
Your setting shouldn’t be merely a cardboard background. The characters need to interact act with it to give it purpose, else any location will work in its place.
And if that is true, then you either need to find a better setting or revise your plot.
We should always set our scenes where it will bring focus to the conflict and increase the tension of the moment.
A strange painting. A gun in the nightstand by the bed. A kitchen knife on the counter. A secret door.
There is a myriad of ways a setting can add to the scene and make its way into the plot.
However, we don’t just want to tell the reader they’re there, they need to be used to further the scene.
So even if there is a kitchen knife on the counter, we don’t want to mention it unless it plays some role in the current scene or foreshadows a future event.
We want to keep our descriptions focused only on what’s important in the scene and critical to the reader’s understanding at that moment.
Balancing Description Without Going Overboard
No matter how well we might plan a setting and know its details inside and out, readers don’t want to know the unimportant or mundane.
You’ll only be wasting their time if you do and make it more likely they start skimming. Or in worst case scenarios, quit reading your book.
The most you should provide is three or four details at any one.
If more is essential to the understanding of the story, try to find a way to spread it out, so it doesn’t overwhelm or bore the reader.
Limit your description to only what matters and leave the mundane to the reader’s imagination.
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.