One of my biggest turn offs in any novel I’m reading is too much detail. I tend to skip over these parts. For me, part of reading is experiencing the setting and imagining things on my own. I don’t like it when the author does ALL the imagining for me. Leave some of it to the reader, please. It’s what we try to do in our own novels. There is a certain delight in seeing the place through your own set of eyes, and one can’t do that if the author explains every single little detail.
So, how do you know when there is too much detail? Or not enough? That’s an excellent question.
The first thing, we, and I mean all writers, need to do, is get a sense of what is really necessary for your story. This does come with time and practice, and most likely numerous edits. You also need to set yourself away from the story and characters you love. I know this is extremely hard to do. It’s also hard to take criticism from your beta readers if there is something he or she doesn’t like. Try to listen anyway. They make good points, but it doesn’t mean you have to do things exactly their way either!
One of the things, I struggle with on description is not opening a scene with it. I’ve seen other writers do it, too. They have this awesome one sentence that immediately grabs you and then they lose you with an over abundance of description, that isn’t really necessary. Take your time in describing. Space it out for the love of the reader. Description truly bogs down what could be a great story.
For me, and this is still a lesson I have to teach myself with every story, personal appearance doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. I know we all put descriptions of our characters into our writing because we want the reader to see what we see, to know the character as we know them, but part of the joy of reading is seeing the character as you want to see them. It’s something I have to remind myself as an author and a reader. Don’t over detail the character unless it is absolutely necessary to the story or the character’s motivation. Frankly, for me, as a reader, it kills my interest in it every single time. I’m reading the passage, sometimes skipping over it, thinking I don’t care.
For me, this is too much detail: Freddy was wearing a red vest, with black swirls down one side of it and white down the other side. The threading holding everything together was a bright white, standing out against the fabric. There was a small tear on the bottom right edge of the vest, which seemed to go unnoticed, a crumple in the midsection of his back, and a small pocket on his right breast where a phone could have sat. For me, the description would have been fine if it had read: Freddy was wearing a red vest with black swirls down one side of it and white down the other side. However, if that outfit was a crucial part of the story, by all means describe it. Maybe the tear in it had some significance to something, maybe the crumple did, or even the pocket. If not, I call it over detailing. If it doesn’t really have a place in the story, keep it simple.
Also, something to keep in mind while writing description, avoid a solid, dull paragraph of it. Try writing the description through the character’s eyes instead. Any setting shouldn’t be described before the character gets there. It doesn’t make much sense to me that the reader knows the entire setting before the character does. It also helps you avoid those long, lengthy descriptions that bog down the story. Have the character make the setting for you. For example, if a house has been abandoned for a lengthy time, have him walk through cobwebs, have doors creak or are kind of difficult to open, or run his fingers through a thick layer of dust, or something to convey it’s been abandoned for some time.
So, instead of going into a paragraph, or more, of description, try action and dialogue first. It also helps lessen the repeat of information the reader is receiving. I’ve read several stories where there is a whole bunch of information being dumped on them in boring prose form and then that same information is later repeated in the dialogue or action of the scene. Talk about clubbing the reader over the head with the description!
Here’s my advice, and one I am taking to heart as well. (As writers, we all know there is always room for improvement.) Cut. Cut. Cut. I’m serious here. Keeping cutting things from your story until you have reduced it to what feels like a “skeleton” of your story. You’ll realize this is your story and the rest was wholly unneeded. I guaranty you’ll enjoy the story and so will the reader because you’re letting the reader imagine the things they want to be able to imagine and not bogging down the story telling.