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Reading Between the Lines

A few of us had an interesting discussion at a writer’s group this weekend, and we really did not come to any hard conclusions, except we know some things about the fiction market, as it appears from data. So I thought I would ask you, the readers, what you think. Ready for the question:

How much description is too much?

Before you leave a comment below, let me outline what we do know as authors, what we are taught in classes and workshops. Then fire away with your opinions.

Show don’t tell. This is a nebulous, editorial term bandied about, and it is a lie, of sorts. Modern readers seem to prefer being shown, through action, rather than told how a character feels. And new writers tend to over tell, and not show the story enough, so when we are ‘told’ to show and not tell, we end up with about the right amount of telling (most of the time).

So what do you prefer? To live the story through the senses of the character (be shown the story), or do you want a narrator to tell you what is happening?

Leave out the part the readers usually skip. This is another famous rule, one of Elmore Leonard’s top ten. These rules are often hotly debated, something readers usually don’t hear (or care) about. But what we are told, that you, dear reader, do skip the long, descriptive sections when they are too detailed and lengthy. However, I have talked to readers who said they want more description than certain authors offer. One told me Stephen King was not descriptive enough, while I often find him verbose.

So are those the parts you usually skip? If not, what are they?

Don’t underestimate the reader’s imagination. As both a reader and an author, I like to use my imagination. A lot. Thus my choice of profession suits me. But what about you, as a reader? How much to do I need to describe a scene, a character, before I set an image in your mind? Do you want the author to describe it in detail, creating a thorough image for you, or would you rather read fewer details, and fill in the blanks yourself?

Here’s my opinion. Writers are different. Readers are different. So depending on the genre you read, and the authors you like, your answers to these questions will also be different. Still, the questions are interesting, aren’t they? They certainly made me think about how I write, and what I like to read.

Go ahead. Share what you think. After all, you are the reason writer’s write. Thanks in advance for sharing.

Published inAdvice for Authors


  1. dellanioakes dellanioakes

    As an author & a reader, I get frustrated by too much of anything. There’s a fine line there and my too much may be someone else’s just right. However, long philosophical conversations during sex — too much. Allow me to add that long philosophical discussions at any time, is going to lose my interest.

    Too much talk and not enough action. I read a story where they were talking in a bar, talking on the street, talking in the car, talking when being chased by bad guys – conversation. Not just “Watch out! Duck!” (This is the same book where they chatted during sex)

    I like enough description when reading and writing, to give a sense of the environment, the people, the scene, without spoon feeding it. If someone likes detailed descriptions about how many leaves are on the trees, the layout of the bricks in the pavement or the number of clouds in the sky, I’m not the author for you.

    Just FYI THAT is the crap I skip when I’m reading. I read something by a famous fantasy author who described everything in such elaborate detail, I got lost. I also lost the thread of the action and had to go back to read what I’d forgotten. I know now not to read these two authors, obviously their style doesn’t jibe with mine.

    My rule of thumb about my own writing — if it bores me to read it, then it will bore my readers. If it keeps my interest and moves forward, that’s the way to go. I don’t think that numbers and percentages can really apply to writing. These “rules” are more like guidelines, really.

    As a matter of fact, most “writing rules” are crap anyway. Write what you feel passionate about, use good grammar and syntax and keep the “helping verbs”, “he began to” “and then” to a minimum and you should have a decent book.

  2. Too much description is very boring to me. Stephen King bores me to tears. I can’t read him.

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