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February 1, 2017

I’ve talked about descriptions in various forms throughout the lifetime of this web site. Descriptions set the scene and help establish the mood and feel of your story. However, there are limits and that’s what I want to discuss today.


In literary fiction, it’s all about the words. Action takes a second stage to description, emotion and narrative. People who like literary writing will not blink an eye at page-long descriptions of some object, location or person. It’s all about the wordplay, the depth of feeling and immersion. Words words words.


In this case, the description is just the starting off point. The idea is to give the reader an idea of what it is, then let them fill in their own blanks. Giving too much description slows the pace, bogs down the action. In genre fiction writing, pacing is everything. People want to see the story MOVE!


The good writer strikes a balance between just enough description to give the reader an idea what something looks like, but doesn’t drag on into too much detail as to give the reader significant pause. What does this mean?

Using me as an example, I just don’t tolerate lengthy descriptions. What happens? The author starts out describing say…a room. We get the dimensions. Then he or she goes into details about furniture, then stuff on the furniture, then history about previous occupants, then history of the objects in the room, then the insects crawling around, the history of the insects, their personal stories, wa wa wa wa.

Folks, he/she’s lost me after the first few sentences. What I see is the good old Charlie Brown adult-speak phenomena, “Wah wah wah wah wah.” I skip to the next paragraph.

If the description continues, I skip to the next paragraph. I continue until the author gets back on track.

I cannot be the only reader that does the same thing.

I’ve already filled in my own blanks with my own useless trivial details that have nothing more to do with the plot than the minutiae that the author just described! Believe me, those minutiae have NOTHING to do with the plot!

When an action/genre writer goes literary, they bog down the action.


This is why you keep descriptions to a minimum. I’m not telling you not to describe things. For goodness sakes, do it! However, when you do, get the most bang for your buck and describe what needs to be described. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say (for you young’uns, look up the TV series Dragnet to get that reference).

Give the reader the key details that’re essential to the story, or the key details you want the reader to know and let them fill in their own picture. They’re going to do it anyway, given the first few sentences.

Don’t try to dictate every detail. It doesn’t work.

Happy writing!

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