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What is enough and what is too much?

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Psychoclown

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I think we've all read works where the author just relentlessly hammers home certain things. Certain characters are never mentioned without reference to their physical appearance. For example a given character can never show up without being described as gaunt, skeleton like, rail thin, bony, emaciated, ect. At a certain point, we get it the guy is skinny to the point of appearing unhealthy or at least unsettling.

The same can be with settings. A house is always described as appearing ancient, crumbling, dilapidated, ect. Bonus points for adding scents of mildew, rot, decay, ect. I'm not opposed to any of this in the correct dose. Using the right physical description can evoke strong connotations that create a powerful atmosphere or can be used to subvert a reader's expectations. But there is such a thing as diminishing returns and too much of a good thing. I know I feel like I can occasionally veer into this territory. And for me as a reader, I know there are certain points where it just feels like the author is screaming "HE'S FAT AND (insert negative connotation being invoked)!"

But then I must say, in certain works/genres, this can work. I think it works in pieces that are more exaggerated or over the top. A maniacal villian that chews the scenery and is always described as cackling like a lunatic can work in some simpler good vs evil works, especially if he's used in short doses. Horror that wants to establish a pervasive, inescapable atmosphere of dread or doom may also benefit from some more relentless description that constantly reinforces the atmosphere.

Anyway, I've poured out some of my musings on the topic. Curious to hear what you all have to say.
 

Silenia

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It generally isn't about strict amounts so much as the way it's done. Does it fit into the narrative and story, or distract from it?

So things like
* Does it disrupt the story's flow/pace? (E.g. pausing mid-car chase scene to give a three-paragraph description of the gnarly limbs of a tree they just went past at 100 mph)
* Is there a tone/word choice mismatch between description and narrator (or, if through dialogue, the speaking character)?
* Does it fit the viewpoint character/narrator's perspective? (In other words, does the description contain elements or knowledge that the narrator would not actually have? There's some cases in which this can be done deliberately and done well, but typically it's accidental and messy)
* Is the description frequently tell-y in ways beyond the actual descriptive information itself? (E.g. everything is suspiciously something, or deceptively something else, or curiously yet another thing, where the only reason we know it is suspicious/deceptive/curious is because we've just been told it is)
* Does the description rely on cliches, stereotypes and other lazy writing? Or on the other extreme, does the description read like the author's main purpose was showcasing that particular piece of prose rather than telling the story?
* Is the description used in place of/as shorthand for actual development, whether that's character development, plot development or some other form of it?
* Is it used to lampshade plot, character motivations, or the "true nature" of a place or character in particularly a heavy-handed manner so that it feels like you're staring at a giant arrow accompanied by a "Hint, hint! ;)" speech balloon?
* Does the description contain unfortunate, unintended implications, come with mismatching symbolism, or is otherwise a little off like the author browsed a thesaurus to get a more interesting synonym only to fail to take the chosen word's actual nuances into account?
* Does it otherwise stand out in a distracting manner, like being highly repetitive? (and not just on an exact-word level, but also on a structural level. If every new character introduced is followed by one sentence describing their physique, the second their clothes, a third their face and the fourth their manner of speech and/or behaviour, in that exact order, that'll stand out too.)
 

Mjfaraldo

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I noticed that I only describe characters physical appearance or settings the first time and vaguely.

As a reader, I like to imagine the characters myself and it goes for the setting too. With only a few hints, our brains fill in the rest and it becomes your own movie as a reader.

I have read a very famous and loved book that described everything in such detail, that I ended up putting it down and not reading it. There is such a thing as too much, in my opinion.
 

Lakey

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I’m a bit obsessed with the notion of hyper-efficient writing; I like descriptions that serve multiple purposes at once. For instance, a description needn’t just set forth physical attributes of the thing described. It can contribute to characterization of the POV character, or (if the description is of a person) of the describee, or even of both. It can contribute to mood. It can contribute to backstory. It can convey an emotion of the POV character. It can create an emotion in the reader. Description can and should contribute to the story in multiple aspects.

A description of a person need not be a head-to-toe catalog of attributes such that a police sketch artist could render a drawing from it. A description of a room need not be sufficient for a set designer to reproduce the room in every particular. Good description chooses a handful of salient details that distinguish the person or thing described from other persons or things of similar type—what Sol Stein calls “details that particularize.” The best descriptions choose and render those details in a way that performs other purposes in the story as well, as I noted above.

And, descriptions need not be static. Instead of describing what a person or thing looks like, I like to try describing people and things by way of their interactions with others or with the environment. This is another way to achieve vivid description that performs multiple functions.

:e2coffee:
 
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Woollybear

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For myself, I've found that one unusual descriptor (like Harry's lightning scar) pulls a hell of a lot more weight than six standard descriptors. So a standard descriptor might rightfully be repeated in the story, because we don''t pay much attention to 'brown hair and stocky build' as we do to 'stump where her right hand used to be.' And no one cares about hair color for a character who lost a hand. The stump will require explaining somewhere in the story, but that will build character too.

(Regarding Harry, I suppose a need for glasses brings in options, too, like the possibility of misplacing one's glasses--which can be useful.)

When it comes to amount, I rely on my various critique partners to help out. (Because I skimp on descriptions ... and they set me straight.) I like Lakey's thoughts on this one--and to add to this, for example, through the course of the story, a viewpoint character can notice that someone's beard might have grown, or their clothing have grown stale. That is a clue about something else entirely. And comparing one person to another is a great way to slip in details. A character sees her father and reflects briefly that her strong nose, which she so dislikes, came from his side of the family.
 
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Stytch

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Sometimes, I like seeing that stuff because it's an extra reminder to my dumb self. But this is only true when there's a Game of Thrones-esque level of characters. Massive cast, narratives, timelines? Multiple fantasy nations/ types to keep separate? Yeah, help the reader remember this stuff.
 
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I think we've all read works where the author just relentlessly hammers home certain things. Certain characters are never mentioned without reference to their physical appearance. For example a given character can never show up without being described as gaunt, skeleton like, rail thin, bony, emaciated, ect. At a certain point, we get it the guy is skinny to the point of appearing unhealthy or at least unsettling.

The same can be with settings. A house is always described as appearing ancient, crumbling, dilapidated, ect. Bonus points for adding scents of mildew, rot, decay, ect. I'm not opposed to any of this in the correct dose. Using the right physical description can evoke strong connotations that create a powerful atmosphere or can be used to subvert a reader's expectations. But there is such a thing as diminishing returns and too much of a good thing. I know I feel like I can occasionally veer into this territory. And for me as a reader, I know there are certain points where it just feels like the author is screaming "HE'S FAT AND (insert negative connotation being invoked)!"

But then I must say, in certain works/genres, this can work. I think it works in pieces that are more exaggerated or over the top. A maniacal villian that chews the scenery and is always described as cackling like a lunatic can work in some simpler good vs evil works, especially if he's used in short doses. Horror that wants to establish a pervasive, inescapable atmosphere of dread or doom may also benefit from some more relentless description that constantly reinforces the atmosphere.

Anyway, I've poured out some of my musings on the topic. Curious to hear what you all have to say.
If the reader is given the information they need to know when they need to know it, in a way that does not bore, distract, or annoy them, it works. If the reader isn't given the information they need to know when they need to know it, or if they are given the information in a way that bores, distracts, or annoys them, it doesn't work.

Not all readers are the same. Not all writers use the same methods.
 
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WriteMinded

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OK. I agree. Nobody wants to read the same things over and over again. However, in books with a ton of characters, I appreciate little hints about earlier descriptions of people because it makes it easier to place them. If you tell me, in Chapter 2, that Joe is a tall skinny dude and he next shows up in Chapter 10 in the company of five other characters, a mention of his leanness will help my little brain go, "Oh, yeah, I remember him."
 
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Elizabeth George's book Write Away