Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How Much Description is Enough?

Kathryn Page Camp
I don’t use a lot of description in my stories. As a reader, I prefer letting my imagination fill in the details, so I write that way, as well. Still, there are times when some description is necessary.
Genre may also dictate the amount of detail. Romances often include in-depth descriptions of each character, the clothes they wear, and their decorating choices. Thrillers generally don’t.
So how do you find the right level for your work? This rule comes from Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle:
The problem for the writer of popular fiction is to give sufficient description without giving too much. The best solution is to keep your type of reader in mind all the time, and follow what I call the clutter rule: If something isn’t serving the advancement of the story, it needs to go.
His admonition to “keep your type of reader in mind” recognizes the differences between genre, but the basic rule applies to them all. If it doesn’t advance the story you are writing, get rid of it.
In On Writing, Stephen King says, “”For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”
So how do we find those well-chosen details? By ignoring the ones that are common to every similar scene and adding those that the reader will translate into the message you want to send.
Maybe your characters meet in a coffee house. Most readers know what a coffee house looks like, so you don’t have to describe the counter or the room crowded with tables and chairs. But if this particular coffee house is on the verge of bankruptcy, you could mention the empty tables or the cracks in the linoleum flooring.
Or do you want the reader to know that your protagonist’s best friend is poor? Put her in a faded shirt that is too big for her. You don’t have to describe her outfit again until she suddenly appears in a new dress that fits perfectly. That will peak the readers’ interest more than a constant fashion (or off-fashion) show will. If your protagonist is obsessed with what people wear, however, that’s another matter.

You can evoke a country setting by describing a white clapboard church with a cemetery and surrounded by farmlands. Or you can place your story in an urban setting with a stone church sitting on the corner of two streets lined with brick houses. These few details are enough to paint the picture.
Every reader is different. But if you want to keep my attention, tell me what I need to know and let my imagination fill in the rest.
Both of the photographs are © 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp. The first is the Lund Mission Covenant Church near Pepin, Wisconsin, with a graveyard barely visible on the left. The second picture shows the Old Pullman Church in Chicago.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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