One of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing is finding the right balance between providing enough description to create an image of the storyworld in your reader’s imagination, and providing so much that the story is bogged down and ceases to move forward.
This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that every writer and reader has a different tolerance level for description. Faced with a paragraph of description, one critique partner may say it’s boring and encourage you to cut it, while another will be enchanted by your poetic imagery. You can’t please everyone so, at the risk of giving you a Ricky Nelson earworm, you’ve got to please yourself.
☐ Readers get enough detail to envision each scene taking place.
You need to give the readers enough to go on. This is related to Blank Stage Syndrome. Adding relevant descriptive details will not only convey your setting, they can reveal a lot about character as well. Let’s compare.
Blayse walked into the office kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee.
Now we know Blayse works in an office, they have a kitchen, and she drinks coffee. But how about this:
Blayse trudged into the cramped kitchen and pulled a chipped mug from the assortment hanging on the wall. She filled it with the sludge left in the bottom of the one remaining pot on the three-burner coffee maker.
Now we know she works in kind of a shabby office, but one that goes through lots of coffee, and she’s desperate if she’s drinking the dregs. One more:
Blayse opened the cherry-wood kitchen cupboard and took out one of the tall black slant-sided mugs. She placed it under the spout of the Keurig machine and plugged in a decaf caramel mocha K-cup.
Now we have a fancier kitchen with matching mugs and no concern about economizing on coffee. Blayse doesn’t need the coffee—she picked decaf. She just wants the flavor.
Not every item in your story needs to be described to this level. But the things your character handles, eats, or otherwise interacts with should be described in enough detail that the reader has an immersive experience. The degree to which your viewpoint character experiences a thing will determine the degree to which you should describe it. If Blayse walks past the kitchen on her way to the conference room, you needn’t describe the kitchen at all.
Next time we’ll look at what happens when we give too much detail.