How Descriptive is Too Descriptive?

This is a question that many authors struggle with. They want to describe the world their stories take place in, the characters involved along with all of their physical traits, and even the weather to give the readers a sense of immersion into the the world and not just the story. But there seems to be a fine line between giving the readers enough information and too much. As a writer, this begs the question to me of where is that line of becoming "too descriptive"?

Well, it seems that the fine line is one that is very subjective. Each reader has a different expectation and different experiences and backgrounds which mean that each reader's definition of "too descriptive" is likely to be different. It would be virtually impossible for any writer to create the perfect balance to appease the entire audience.

As a writer, its my goal to tell my story in a way that will reach and connect with the greater audience and not a select sliver of the reading populace that makes up my target audience. For example, if I'm writing a book on general web development concepts, I'm not going to write it in such a technical way that its content can only be understood by veteran web developers. It would be pointless to write such a book in such a manner. The vast majority of my target audience would not be able to follow along and take from the book its intended value. At the same time, the veteran developers that could follow along with the content would probably feel that the content was not of value to them given their extensive experience with the subject matter.

And writing fiction is no different. You can't write a novel with so little description that new readers might fail to envision and become immersed in the world you created but at the same time, it might not be good to add so much detail that it takes away from the story, from the pace of the plot, the action that might be happening in that scene, etc.

A perfect example of this is a review that suggested the author (me) "underestimated the intelligence of the readers." Luckily for me, I knew who left that review so I reached out for clarification. The reviewer and I shared a friendly conversation about the meaning of that statement. After talking with the individual, it was discussed how they felt they knew what an orc and elf looked like so it seemed somewhat condescending that I took the time and space to go into details about their looks. A little more conversation and that particular reader was a fan of Lord or the Rings and since my characters bore a strong resemblance to characters from that series then it made sense that they would know my version of elves and orcs with minimal description.

However, as the conversation went along, we talked about how elves in Harry Potter looked decidedly different to any elves in LotR and even in DnD and the Drizzt series, the Drow, or Dark Elves, look different than the elves in LotR. As a writer, I don't know which reference or references to elves, if any, each reader has which means I have to give every reader enough detail to show them what my elves look like. It isn't a matter of being condescending or underestimating the intelligence of a reader, it is creating a world that allows all readers, regardless of their previous experiences or influences, to achieve a more complete immersion into the world being created for them.

There is no way to know who is going to pick up a book before they do and tailor the book's content specifically for each reader. Maybe one day they will make interactive books where readers can create a profile or answer background questions to let the "smart" book know what content the reader may want to ignore and only show the content that reader wants. Even then, as an author, I don't know that I like that idea because then readers are only getting part of the story I created and what's the point in that?

It just goes to show that you can't please 100% of the people 100% of the time and, at the end of the day, there really is no such thing as too descriptive. It is up to us as authors to tell the stories we want to tell and the level of description we choose to include in our stories goes along with that. Some readers may appreciate that level of details, some may want more, and others may want less, but it is still your story to tell how you see fit to tell it. There is no way to include "just the right amount" of detail for every reader, just like there is no way to write a book that every reader will love. Bad reviews will happen and some of those reviews may be due to the lack or the abundance of detail. Just write your story the way you want it told. If you're worried about if you have too much or too little, consider looking into securing professional services for a developmental editor and they can be a guide for what may need to be added or removed in the interest of making the best possible version of your story.

Leave a comment