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Details: How Much is Too Much?

As with everything in life, moderation is key. The only difference in writing is that you must pick and choose wisely. Fifteen facial features may be a bit too much whereas “he has a potato head with a bad comb-over” might be more than enough.

Relating a character to someone everyone knows can be another way of moderating your detail on character descriptions. For example: “He has the body of Adonis on steroids…” or “She was as captivating as Aphrodite on a deserted island….”

With characters, I like to focus more on who they are than what they look like. Yes, adding in a little physical description helps the reader to envision them, but it is their underlying personalities that really make them shine. You can go over the top with physical descriptions, but there is no limit to describing the person inside the shell.

With settings, it is all about focusing on the major details no matter how small they may be. Take these two examples and decide for yourselves which is better:

“The dark forest was so full of oak, beech, maple, and hickory trees that you could hardly walk without bumping into one. Towering above our heads, branches spread out wide, they were more obstacle than picturesque.”


“In the dark of night, fireflies danced between the dense trees of the vast forest.”

Sweet and simple. In the second version, we get the fact that the forest is thick and has many types of trees, but we highlight the night and the feel of being out in the woods so late.

My point here is that you should be descriptive, but you should choose what you describe wisely; less is more. Let’s try it again with another example. In this scenario, we have an abducted woman chained in the basement of her captor. How would you describe the scene? Here are two examples; pick for yourself which you think is best.

“The concrete floor was cold and damp. Other than the light of the moon through a small window on the brick wall behind her, she was alone in the dark. The heavy iron shackles chained to the support beam kept her from escaping.”


“Chained to a post in the dank cellar of her captor, she was at his mercy until the opportunity for escape arose.”

Again, I personally prefer the sweet and simple approach. The single word “dank” conveys that it is cold, damp, and musty. We already know that basements and cellars typically have brick walls, and “chained” implies the shackles.

Where detail is important is consistency. If there is a single exit from the basement, then there needs to remain a single exit from the basement. If we’re in New York, then we need to stay in New York until we clearly leave town.

The other area where I enjoy seeing detail is with the description of places or food. Maybe I’m weird that way, but for me at least it adds credibility and draws me into the story. Don’t just tell me they stayed in the Presidential Suite, describe the luxury to me. By the same token, I don’t want to know that he had steak and potatoes for dinner. I would much rather read that he enjoyed a mid-rare filet with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

To go back to the start, I’ll say it again… Everything in moderation. I don’t want to read four paragraphs about their meal at the restaurant and I don’t need to know about every tattoo, birthmark, and freckle she has. Just give me enough to ignite my imagination and I’m good. I believe most readers share that mentality.

On a final note with descriptiveness, I’ll say this: If you’re dealing with a setting or a person we all know, then make sure your details are accurate. If you describe the Golden Gate Bridge in New York City, then you’re going to lose me instantly. The bottom line on that point: Do your research!

Thanks for reading and see you soon… Oh, almost forgot! If you want a challenge, describe the scene in the featured image for this post. Leave your interpretation in the comments.

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