How Much Description Do You Need in Your Writing?

How much detail do you put into your fiction writing?

How much detail should you put into your writing?

This is just another one of those fiction writing tips that really just depends on what it is you’re writing.

That said, there are a few hints to help you along the way depending on the effect you’re trying to create with your story and the genre you’re working in.

My general rule of thumb is to describe only what’s important to the story. The level of detail will vary according to the level of importance of what’s being described.

detail in writing

Describing Things

In my novella, Eyes of the Jaguar, my heroine, Fil (a part-cat part-human werewolf hunter) has a favourite weapon, a big knife she’s named the Good Hunter.

In the early drafts, I had long descriptions the knife, but in my efforts to cut down on the words to pick up the pacing, I decided that the only details necessary were the fact that it’s a big knife with a name. Beta readers, however, were hungry for more detail, so I made it a “beautiful long Bowie”. This is the only specific description I give it and that’s intentional. It’s long, it’s a Bowie. Beautiful how? Does it have an ornate handle or any other embellishments?

Readers are clever, they can paint their own picture.

This approach is also good because it lets the reader see your world as their world.

Hunter is a cool Bowie knife. One reader’s answer to a cool Bowie knife might be a massive ornate thing with a jewel encrusted handle, another reader might like the idea of a clean, sleek modern blade. By not describing it, I’ve given the reader the opportunity to choose what they like best.

On the other hand, there’s an amulet in Eyes of the Jaguar I’ve described in significant detail – the shape, the colour, the texture. Those details are important to the plot on multiple levels, even though the Good Hunter is an important part of the main character.

If it’s important, tell us all about it only to the degree that it advances the plot. For the rest, it’s often more effective to let the reader decide what things look like.

looking for details

Describing People and Physical Features

When I describe characters, I follow this same approach.

What does Fil look like? It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that she has a cat’s tail and some cat-like features that she can shift in an out of. The story has enough detail for the reader to see which parts are human and what’s not because that’s important to the character.

What shape is her nose? Her ears? You can decide. I note that she usually wears her hair in a bun about a third of the way into the plot because it was important at that moment. I describe her clothes to the point that I describe why she chooses to dress the way she does. But is she wearing blue denim? Black? Is her coat grey? Woollen? Red? You can decide that too.

That said, there is a character image on the front cover. That was largely a marketing decision. In my own reading experience, my mind will take up an image that’s often significantly unlike the cover image so I’ve left it up to the reader whether or not they decide to picture Fil in the way she’s represented on the cover.

In contrast, my forthcoming novel, Skin (set in the same city as Eyes of the Jaguar) takes a different approach to physical description.

Skin is about physicality. The protagonist, Rev, is obsessed with his body and as such, I’ve described it thoroughly. I explain Rev’s build, his hair, even details of his skin. What colour are his eyes? That’s not important, so I have no idea. His girlfriend’s eyes, on the other hand, are critical to the plot and as such, they’re described in fine detail.

Describe only what's important to plot and character. Readers can and should fill in the blanks.Click To Tweet

What Are You Writing?

The level of description will also depend on the medium you’re writing for.

I mentioned above that I edited out the descriptions of the Good Hunter blade in Jaguar in favour for fewer words. My Guessing Tales novels and novellas are all short, fast reads, so there’s just not a lot of time to talk description.

If you’re writing a longer book, something like an epic fantasy that requires more world building and a more space to do it in, then the description needs to be far more detailed.

Take a look at the level of description in George RR Martin’s novels, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books. It’s mind boggling! It’s also necessary, and it works beautifully for that medium and reader’s expectations of that genre.

Short stories, flash fiction, novelettes and novellas – there just isn’t space to talk about your character’s hair or their dinner unless it’s critical to the plot.

Give your readers some credit and let them fill in a few of the blanks for themselves.

If you’re not sure how much detail to write, try under-describing it and testing it out with a handful of alpha and beta readers.

How do you like to deal with description as a writer? What level of description do you enjoy as a reader?

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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