Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Much is Too Much?

There is a fine line between too much description and just enough to help the reader form a picture in their mind. See the example below:

She flipped her shiny raven hair over her shoulder, her gold hoop earrings catching the light.
She wore an emerald green knit scarf wound around her neck with long tassels hanging down the front of her brown wool dress, a tiny knot anchoring the end of each string.

The above description is similar to one I recently read in a middle grade novel. Do we need to know this much about the character's appearance? The fact that this minor character wore a brown wool dress had nothing to do with the plot and I didn't connect this specific description with that person as I read through the rest of the novel. Other characters were not described in this much detail, so these pockets of adjectives didn't seem to fit. Personally, I find it a little distracting to the story. After about the fourth chapter, the novel was excellent. If I could convince my students to plow through the beginning, they would love it. Many won't do that.

So how do we help the reader paint that very important picture in their minds without interrupting the flow of the plot?

We have to include the descriptions that add valuable insight into the character's personality and details about the scene that affect the plot. I can pick this up pretty quickly in the work of others but maybe not my own.

It is so important to take the risk of allowing someone else to read your pages. Don't ask them to read your first draft when you barely know what direction you are going. That's practically asking them to do your writing for you. Write, edit, rewrite, edit, etc., and when you think it is ready, ask a writer to read it.

Critique groups are especially helpful. They will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Be ready to possibly cut some of those descriptions or unnecessary scenes that go on and on. Your fellow writers will do you a valuable service because many kids will either skip those parts of your book or will stop reading it and if kids do that, so will editors.

If you have any thoughts or disagree with me, I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I do agree with you. I recently read a very popular YA novel in which the author throws out a lot of designer names. Not only do we need to know that the character wore clouds of perfume, she arrives in a cloud of Ms. Dior, wearing a dress by [insert designer], shoes by [insert designer}, carrying a Kate Spade bag. Yes, we get it. These girls are rich. Teens who read the book said they have to read it because the books "are addicting" but they also were laughing at the writing - actually reading passages out loud to each other for laughs. Man, I want to write something that commercial, but without remarks like "I'm kind of embarrassed that I read them because they are so badly written." It makes you wonder though. These books sell in the millions. Maybe the story is just good enough to keep the flaws from killing the book.

  2. I think allowing the character descriptions to come out naturally as part of the story, in small bits, works so much better than stopping at each new character entrance to give a head to toe physical list. When you introduce your character with only a list of physical traits, you are selling yourself short. Character description is an opportunity to give us, the reader, a glimpse inside. Don't waste it on something as banal as tall, dark, and handsome. What does that tell us about your character to set them apart? To make us care about them? Not much.

    Not only does giving a laundry list of physical traits stop the story dead in its tracks, sometimes the details are so specific that it is difficult for the reader to visualize the character as you intended, as in the example above. I'm so preoccupied with how to visualize her scarf and the tassels and knots that I've forgotten to picture the girl. And there still isn't a good description of what she looks like given. she's still just a generic dark-haired girl to me.

    Cutting down the descriptions into one great sentence, especially when it includes action, how the character moves, their attitude, etc., tells us so much more as readers and allows us to fill in our own image of the character. Telling me that a character's face was lined like a map to nowhere gives me more than a head to toe description and it gives me a glimpse inside. There is pain written on that wizened face.

  3. Great comments ladies! I am a fan of similes and metaphors for description as well. If you want to read some beautiful figurative language, give a read to Jerry Spinelli's novel, STARGIRL.