Sunday, February 6, 2011

Writing Class - Less is More

A certain amount of description is essential in all good stories, but writers often struggle with getting the balance right. How much description is enough? How much is too much?

It’s important to give your readers enough description to allow them to imagine the scene without bombarding them with too much detail. The trick is in revealing only the salient details.

Writers are often told they must know everything about the fictional world they’re creating, but this advice can be counter-productive. If your scene takes place in a garden, you probably don’t need to know or describe every plant in that garden (unless, for example, one of those plants is poisonous and will later become a weapon used for murder, in which case you might).

Likewise, you probably don’t need to tell the reader exactly what your characters had for breakfast (unless one of your characters turns out to be allergic to something he ate).

As a general guide, assess each detail for its relevance to the story you’re telling. Include only those details that reveal character, advance the plot, or in some way enhance your story.

Still not sure? Try removing the detail. Is your story poorer for the lack? If so, put it back. If not, leave it out; it probably just isn’t needed.

Paring down can strengthen a story. Trust your reader to fill in the gaps.


  1. It's interesting you write about this, Robyn, because I was thinking about this last night as I finished reading Roald Dahl's 'BFG' to my youngest son. Roald Dahl is one of my favourite children's writers but I couldn't help thinking as I was reading how much detail he uses in describing not only surroundings but also action, much more so than many contemporary children's writers do. I guess writing fashions change as do children's reading styles and expectations.
    Glad to hear it went well at the Younger Sun. They are SUCH a lovely bunch!

  2. I agree, I think writing fashions definitely change. Take those very descriptive nineteenth century novels, for example. Very few such books would be published today.

    As a general rule, I think novels became shorter when TV became popular (competing for our leisure time) and shorter still with the spread of the Internet, which has apparently had the effect of shortening our attention span and fostering impatience with lengthy prose.

    But there are also different genre expectations. While publishers tend to want realistic fiction to be fairly consise, not so with fantasy, which is often longer and more richly descriptive.

    'Less is more' might well be seen as a contemporary 'rule', but like all 'rules' of writing, it's just a guideline and useful when troubleshooting. It certainly doesn't trump the age-old maxim: If your writing 'works', you can ignore the rules.