How much descriptive writing does a story need?

In a recent webinar (I’m afraid we’ll all have to get used to hearing that word) I gave on Setting, one question kept coming up. The question was – ‘how much description should a story have?’

Personally, I think it’s not a question of how much description, but what description is offered by the author, to help the reader imagine a living and breathing world they can really immerse themselves in.

I was recently struck by a descriptive passage that opened a story by the writer Kit Byford. These are the lines:

Sunlight filled the cavern of the kitchen at Cuthbert Lodge. Sunlight, and the warm, buttery goodness of croissants newly hatched from the oven. On the table, heaped bowls of smoked salmon and scrambled egg vied for space with racks of toast and a platter of fat sausages. The thought of what it must all have cost made Miranda wince. But not eating it wouldn’t make it less expensive. She helped herself, and slid into an empty seat.

If creative writing is all about building new worlds that are believable enough for us to be immersed in, then I think this is a piece of description is strong (the fact that it is at the start of a story makes it all the more better, as the start is so important). It is strong because it makes the setting three dimensional, full of objects with life. It makes us want to be a part of it, as it so engages the senses – it makes me salivate with hunger and want to smell the buttery baking scent! Of course, the description helps draw the reader in, and helps sustain their interest, but it doesn’t need to be as warm and enriching. The opening of George Orwell’s 1984 is in fact compelling as it is so hard and brutal that it scares us! The opening line to that novel is-

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clock was striking thirteen.

Just as the novel is cold and direct in its subject matter, so the prose style matches this. Orwell manages to weave in a sense of the absurd too, with the clock striking thirteen. When it comes to description, form should match content. So the multiple clauses of Byford’s description give us a sense of flow that matches the warmth of the description. Whereas the brevity of Orwell matches the harshness of the world he is building for us in 1984.

My direct answer to the question ‘how much description should a story have?’ is ‘as little as possible to give the effect you want.’ So, if we want to describe a soothing, comforting domestic scene, the languorous prose style can be a little more roomy. If you want to describe a brutal tenement, the occasional spiky word of description (mentioning simply barbed wire, concrete or rain) all adds to the sentiment you want that reader to get. It requires some reflection on what type of impression you want the reader to have in order to answer this question of yourself. But the type of description, and the way it is organised, should reflect that impression. The real craft of writing is to say what you want to say as effectively as possible, and don’t keep saying it. Get in and get out- but if you want a more leisurely feel to the story the exit doesn’t need to be as drastic as all that!

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4 comments for “How much descriptive writing does a story need?

  1. 7 December 2017 at 8:01 am

    Great article, Guy. As always, you give excellent advice. I have always struggled with that and decided — the more the better— fill in as much detail as you can to give the reader a complete sense of place— but what you are saying makes perfect sense. I shall remember this advice from now on and make full uses of it.
    Thanks again
    Carole

  2. 8 December 2017 at 8:50 am

    I like the idea that description at the start of a story should be three-dimensional. Both beginnings are arresting, but Orwell packs more punch – short and sharp. I am not sure that I agree with Carole’s comment “the more the better” – seems to me that “the less the better.” Choosing the right word instead of five “good-enough” words is more telling. In the third line of the fifth paragraph, Guy, you say “…it makes it more better.” Would it be enough to just say “makes it better”? Thanks so much for the thought-provoking article.
    Best wishes, and I look forward to more,
    Gilly

    • 8 December 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Hi, Gill. You are right. I was just making the point that I used to think that but realise Guy’s advice is much better.

  3. Liz Newman
    8 December 2017 at 9:12 am

    I like to think of a story as an opinionated parrot, sitting on my shoulder and saying, a bit more description, a lot less description – and by the way, you can cut that bit right out. The story should have its own views, rather than yours or your best friend’s. And it often says things you don’t like…

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