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I have loved writing since early in high school and it has helped me tremendously, not only in my emotional well being, but also in music. I have started writing on a lot of things, which I wanted to take seriously, but I never got around to it. Now I'm working on a new piece.

I tend to be "overly" descriptive of the character and his/her/its environment. I like the idea of the reader feeling like they have been there or can see it clearly in their minds, but how much description can you give before it ruins the plot? Too much detail makes it feel like a text book and too little makes it too vague.

Where as a writer would you draw the line? 50/50 description and plot? or do you have another mix that guides your writing?

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4 Answers 4

Let the character drive. As Dean Wesley Smith says: All setting is opinion.

So make sure you describe everything that the character has an opinion about (or a reaction to) in the moment.

If you want to describe something else, give your character a good reason to have an opinion about it. But be careful here. It's easy to slip into describing things for writerly reasons rather than character reasons.

This has a lot of useful effects:

  • It makes the description interesting.
  • It makes your description do double duty. It not only describes the setting but also characterizes.
  • It helps with pacing. Characters notice (and opine on) different things depending on the pace and intensity of what's going on around them, and what's happening inside them.
  • It can highlight the plot. In particular, it can highlight the character's desires, and the things that are most troubling or frustrating or threatening for them at any moment in the plot.

This question is for me an example of a principle I made up a long time ago: Most questions of balance are better framed as questions of selection. That is, instead of how much, ask which.

Instead of "How much description?" ask "Which things shall I describe?" I like Dean's criterion for selecting. There are likely other good criteria, too.

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I must say I like your approach a lot. Instead of applying descriptions directly, as tools of building the right mood, you make them the extensions of characters. It's a restriction that limits flexibility of their use, but it really has a potential to improve the depth of characters. –  SF. Jan 15 at 16:03
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There is no firm rule. Not only various subjects require various amount of detail, some readers will find the same text too dry while others will find that very piece too verbose.

The best you can do is get feedback from multiple readers and adjust, confronting their opinions. Over time you'll learn to strike balance that satisfies most (you'll never satisfy all), and you'll learn to portion descriptions in order to steer the mood.

Some examples of where and how portioning and altering the styles of descriptions works:

  • tranquil scenes of reflective mood - long, florid descriptions.
  • impressive locations of grandeur - same.
  • locations or objects that are sure to be important or incite strong feelings - detailed, although to the point descriptions.
  • locations that matter to the plot - to the point descriptions that contain all the necessities but little beyond that.
  • presenting important characters that are to recur - focused descriptions about their characteristic traits, only skimming the remainder
  • very intense impressions - use strong metaphors and similes.
  • secondary characters - short focused descriptions, most essential details
  • fast scenes - fights, run, cover - descriptions to the minimum.
  • things out of place - make sure to re-draw them, after skimming over them in generic description do a surprised double-take.
  • climax point - a very detailed, slow-motion description.
  • dazed, concussed - slim descriptions with weird focus, e.g. emphasizing some completely mundane traits you'd normally gloss over.
  • dream sequences - tell, don't show. Impressions and facts instead of images and processes.
  • altered states of consciousness - quite otherworldly descriptions using completely nonintuitive similes.

Still, you need to know your audience, your goal and understand your style to know how much is "long, florid" and how much is "to the point". Unfortunately as the author you lack the perspective, and that's where feedback is really essential.

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+1 you'll never satisfy all –  xpy Jan 28 at 20:38
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Funny, I do exactly that: 50-50 (I think it's a bit neurotic, though).

Here's an example:

The bus reached the station a few minutes later. I got off, pulled out my umbrella, and glanced at the colorless city. For the first time in my life, rain felt depressing and heavy on my skin. Each drop fell like a tiny bomb, leaving behind a slight trace of pain. How could some people stand being far from their loved ones? How did they deal with the continuous traveling, and the sense of instability?

My stomach grumbled. I remembered that I hadn't eaten breakfast; just a coffee and that had been it. I didn't want to walk too far. I was so tired. I decided to grab something here at the station. I wandered around for a while without much success—either the prices were too high, or the food looked less than appealing.

I was about to give up when a shop caught my attention. It was a tiny sushi stand painted in black and red, with large white letters at the top that read Sushi Break. On the display case, there was all kinds of sushi. Tuna, salmon, roe, shrimp, squid, you name it. Their bright colors contrasted greatly with the grayness of the city, so much they almost seemed to glow. They looked tasty, and were incredibly cheap.

One thing, though. I think it's not necessary for you to think of plot and description as two separated things. Like in the sample above, even though I "classify" them as description, they are deeply embedded in the plot. How the character feels. Which is fundamentally what moves a plot forward.

What I usually do is to see the character's surroundings as an extension or metaphor of his/her feelings or thoughts. That way, the line between description and plot suddenly disappears.

That's the "mix" that guides my writing.

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Your first responsibility to the reader is to get on with the story. This is exciting and keeps the reader reading your book until the end - something they don't have to do if you bore them with too much description.

Essentially don't sacrifice story for description, as this will turn the reader off really quickly. So keep your descriptions brief, but colorful, to evoke a feeling without being flowery and turning the reader off.

For example, you could describe a character entering an alley at night. You could describe how dirty the alley is by listing all the dirty things: the stink of the bin, the rubbish, the mud, the kitchen smells, the rats, the bums around fires, the flickering lights.

Instead, use this technique for writing brief descriptions: let one or two things SIGNIFY for the whole - e.g. the puddle in this case: "Phillips crept into the dark alley. His foot squelched into a filthy puddle and grey mud oozed over his shoes and soaked into his socks." The reader gets the idea that the alley is filthy, without the author having to make a checklist that bores them. And it is still part of the action of the scene too.

Read some noir detective fiction to help boil down your descriptions to absolute essentials - as this genre is very good at this. e.g. "She's a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she's washed her hair since Coolidge's second term, I'll eat my spare tire, rim and all" from Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. Authors like Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler are recommended, but there are plenty of others.

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