“God is in the details”. This phrase is used so much, that it has crossed into the realm of clichés. While I’ve heard this phrase uttered for industries from maid service to politics, in writing, those details can go too far. Of course, how much description is too much?
When Charles Dickens was still alive, and writing, critics said that he over described everything and the only thing anyone would ever get out of the writing is a good night sleep. Now we read his books and get an insight into the England of the past, a very different landscape where workhouses were cruel to the orphans who lived in them.
Description is a writer’s tool to draw people into the world from their point of view. It is a tool to establish character, and setting, but there are ways it can go too far. Here are three.
The first is obvious description. Obvious description is the type that leaves people saying “duh” and putting the book down. Things like “The sky above me”, “The ground below me”, don’t laugh, I’ve actually read these in published books. I just gave those books to goodwill, without finishing them. It’s a desperate attempt to make a word count without having to use your creativity. In a novel 80,000 words or more, the occasional slipup is forgivable, but when the writer uses them throughout the novel, I have to wonder if there is any talent behind the words.
The second is describing something that has nothing to do with what you’re writing. If you’re writing a romance in Maine, you don’t want to describe a dog running through a field in India. It may seem abstract, and poetic, but to readers it’s annoying and they’ll never make it past the first page. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for using abstract and poetic material in books, after all, Shakespeare did it all the time, but you need to make sure it’s relevant to the story.
The third way description can go too far is when it would be better shown than told. When people don’t have something to reference, tell us about it. A good example of this would be an historical novel about a king. You wouldn’t describe a fifth century palace by showing us a shopping mall. You would tell us about the rooms and corridors. On the other hand, if you are describing a shopping mall you can have your character walk past an Orange Julius, or The Gap, and most everyone would know what you’re talking about without lengthy exposition.
While writing consider carefully the way you describe your subject, or setting. Just remember the saying, “a place for everything, and everything in its place”; this is the thing to think about when deciding between show and tell.
Challenge: If you come across a part when you don’t know whether you should “show” or “tell”, try writing it in different ways, and see which method draws you in more.