Description in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?

6 Comments

  1. Your second description would be sufficient if you had a character thinking it or saying it to someone else. By itself your right dry and boring. The first was okay to set the seen, but it needs to shift to action rather quick.
    I don’t have a beef with most male writers description as long as there’s enough to satisfy curiosity.
    The babe was hot- good for a one night stand, but if she’s going to be a major character there needs to be more: color of hair, eyes, figure knowwhatImean?

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  2. Usually, hate the former. I cannot stand writers who must describe every color, smell, sound… I want a story, not a contest to see how many big and colorful words can be used. However, some description is a good guide to characters and scenery. I really just skip the blah, blahs in a lot of books.

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  3. Thingy, I do too. This may sound sexist, but women writers seem to describe to the smallest detail. I’ve read some men that over describe, but the ones I like give the basics and go on with the story.
    I think the horror genre, not my cup of tea, needs a little more than others to give it the mood, unless it’s a gotcha story.

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    1. I think you are right–atmosphere is important in horror. Though it’s easy to go overboard–Lovecraft tended to describe everything in minute detail, whether it was needed or not, and it made the stories drag.

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