Saturday, February 26, 2011

How Much Description is Too Much?

Sweet Historical Romance
North Texas 1901
Remember I am no expert. My knowledge on any writing topic comes from a few years of self-study, and lest you think I know a great deal, let me set you straight. I am not…Sorry, I’ve already said that.

Why am I writing about this boring topic? Lately, more lavish description than is needed or wanted seems to be creeping in some fiction. While our writing instructors tell us “less is more,” and encourage us to omit descriptive phrases, we still feel compelled to endlessly describe.

“Her lovely eyes resembled pieces of emerald, shadowed by long, lush lashes, set in an alabaster face worthy of the most beautiful of angels.” (I made that up.)

First of all, this passage must be from the Hero’s POV. How many men do you know, or have ever existed had thoughts like this? A cowboy might think, “Her eyes sure were pretty, sort of green.” A modern man might say this: “Her eyes were so pretty, I wish I had the words to describe them.”

AVOID detailed descriptions of characters. Elmore Leonard in his Ten Rules of Writing, says, In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, yet we see the couple and know them by the tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

However, I need some description of the characters in some manner, or none at all. Why? Because I visualize the characters, and unless I have a clue early on I’ll paint a picture of them myself. If an author waits until about the fourth or fifth chapter to finally let me know the girl is petite, buxom, with coal-black hair hanging almost to her waist, I might have her pictured her as tall, lithe, and blond. By that time I have so much invested in my version, the author’s description makes me irritable.

AVOID great detailed descriptions of places and things. We don’t need to impress our readers with the beauty of our story setting. If we go on and on about it, heaping up adjectives and adverbs along the way, we run the risk of losing our readers because they have become weary and slammed the book shut.

Again, as a reader I do need to know in some creative way the surroundings or setting of the novel.

Now that I’ve offered this advice, I’m still in the process of “how much description is too much.” Or maybe I should be learning how to include my descriptions without listing everything in one paragraph.

In Wish for the Moon (1901), Max Garrison wanders to the McGinnis farm. There he meets the family, especially young, pretty Annie, complete with a few descriptions.


When alone, Max walked to the spreading shade tree by the house and sat so he could lean back on the trunk. He lifted his hat and repositioned it to cover his eyes. Then he crossed his arms over his full stomach, let out a huge sigh, and fell sound asleep.

After some time, he didn’t know how long, he opened his eyes because he could feel a presence like somebody watched him and maybe waited near him. There sat the little blonde girl, except on close-up inspection, she was just about grown, maybe sixteen, seventeen years old. She sat cross-legged right beside him so he could easily touch her if he reached out. But he didn’t; he just waited, until she did something instead of sitting there, studying him.

“Hi, there,” she said, in a sweet sounding voice, sort of like water gurgling and sliding over smooth rocks—that swooshing, humming sound a person never gets tired of. “What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you around here before. Are you from over to Granbury? Or maybe Mineral Wells or Dublin?”

“Uh-uh. I’m from nowhere,” he said without grinning or anything. “I’m just a wanderer.”


“Why? Because I don’t have a real home, that’s why,” he answered. He never took his eyes off her big, pretty, blue ones, a little turned down at the corners, and framed all around with dark-brown lashes.

“Everybody has a home, don’t you know that? Except maybe those hoboes that stay over yonder under the railroad trestle. Are you from over there?”

“Nope.” He shook his head and chuckled a little at her persistence and curiosity. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“Why should I be?” she asked with a mock frown. “Are you a crook who robbed a bank, or a bootlegger who runs whiskey, or maybe you’re just a no-account bum?”

Now her face split into the widest grin that made his cold empty heart jump to life. More than anything right now, he wanted her to keep smiling at him.

“Nah,” she answered her own question, “you’re too nice looking to be a bad person. I bet you’re really a rich man who’s just having a good time wandering about letting somebody else take care of all his money, or maybe a famous doctor who left a good-paying hospital so you could rest from all the pressure of saving people and all that operating and stuff. Or I bet you—”

Max’s laughter cut her off. She sat real still and watched him laugh aloud, studying his one slightly crooked eyetooth on the left side. He said, “Yeah, I just bet you think all that. But you don’t really know, now, do you?” Max’s voice lost all trace of the laughter, and he solemnly gazed at her prettiness.

WISH FOR THE MOON: Coming Soon from Willow Moon Publishing.

Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas


  1. Hi Celia:

    I love your example from “Wish for the Moon”.
    I want to read the book right now!

    There is no simple answer to how much description to use. It all depends because description serves many purposes.

    I enjoy reading southwest genre books because I love the setting. In these books the location has the importance of a major character. People buy the books for the settings and descriptions. You better have a lot in this genre.

    I also read Betty Neels books because she writes the best descriptions of home interiors and city settings. If her characters go into a restaurant, you’ll feel like you’ve been there, too. Her descriptions heighten the emotional impact of her story line.

    Of course, today descriptions set an emotional tone and serve to move the plot along. Descriptions can and often should advance the plot and/or the character ARC. I’ve written about this on my blog. I even have an award for doing it well.

    Do you have any idea about how long "soon" is for the release of "Wish for the Moon"?


  2. VINCE--Thank you! No, I don't know how "soon" soon is. The publisher hasn't given me an exact date. It will come out in digital form first, then a few months later, in print. I want the print because of readers here in town who want what you do....the settings and time period and descriptions. This one involves my birthplace, 8 mi north of Mineral Wells. And also, Thuber, Texas, the ghost mining town.
    Google Thurber, Texas and see what happened to the town! It's fascinating.
    Can you give me your blog name? I want to check it out.
    Again, thank you so much for visiting--Celia

  3. I'm caught up in this story already, Celia. And I know I can depend on it being a "good read" because your books never let me down. I envy you that Texas background behind all of them. I'm just a nomad, you know.
    About descriptions. I tend to err on the side of not enough. I had a short story that won Fiction Skills Scholarship at Indianna U. some time ago and later an author friend asked me "What did Billy Ray look like?" And that was the first time I realized that I hadn't shared my image of him with the readers. Lesson learned.
    I'm looking forward to WFTM to be released.

  4. Hi Celia:

    My blog is “The Philosophy of Romance” at

    You might want to read my post:
    “Chasing the Sun” & the Use of Physical Description to Show Character Growth!


    200 “Triggers” for creating emotional responses at

    I think you find my site is very different and I hope useful for writers.


  5. Great post Celia.
    I think there's a million different ways to weave discription into a story without giving a detailed description at one time.

    Your excerpt does make me want more. I'm sure it will be a huge success.

  6. In my own writing, I always have to go back and add more desciptions of place. I am of the minimalist view- I like the reader to have his/her own vision. When I read for pleasure, I find myself skimming the long paragraphs of description so I really try not to over do it.

    I love the excerpt and the cover is exquisite. Can't wait to hear the release date.

  7. LINDA--yes, but you have an international background, as well as, several states, to pull information to use in your wonderful stories.
    As to description, I just read your To Those Who Wait, and it struck me early on that you used very little description. I didn't know what Leah or Scott or Ginny looked like, except in my imagination.
    That would be fun to discuss sometimes--maybe in a guest blog--how I pictured Leah, and how you pictured her.
    Thank you for visiting....Celia

  8. VINCE--what am I thinking? I have your blog. Now, I'll check it out--Celia

  9. ADELLE--that's the beauty of writing fiction--we can use out imagination. If the author doesn't give us much, that's fine---we'll just invent something. Even better. I hope you do read the book.Celia

  10. Hi, Jillian--and I can't wait to here the release date, either!
    One commentor on here--Linda Swift--writes like you do, maybe. She certainly is a minimalist when it comes to description. I just finished one of her novels, and realized she had pratically no description, yet I knew what everyone looked like.
    But it seems to me that readers love descriptions of characters--many seem to need to know color of hair, eyes, etc.--sort of like our artists do when creating a cover.

  11. Celia, I am especially lookng forward to this book. I find mining in N TX fascinating, and of course I love your writing. Winning combinations!

  12. CAROLINE--oh, thank you. I had such fun writing it, and it's different from most of my books.Thanks--Celia

  13. Hi Celia,

    I'm a fan of your writing, and I love the cover of this new effort. It has a historical feel and the yellow roses of Texas make it clear who and what your book is about.

    When it comes to description, I always have to edit some in because in my first draft I'm more worried about getting the action and dialogue right. So that when I get around to splicing in the dialogue, I'm conscious of keeping it minimal but enough of a sketch to clue people in to my story-world vision. It takes a strong and talented writer to trust the reader to "get" it all on their own.

    Can't wait til Wish for the Moon comes out!


  14. oops. I meant to proof my comment better. I meant to say when I get around to splicing the SETTING in, I try to keep it minimal.

    trying to keep up with my flying fingers this morning

  15. I'm like Maggie, I concentrate on the dialogue and action first, then add the descriptions in later. I tend to go with less than more, giving only a few details, and let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves based on their own experiences and preferences.

  16. Celia, I try not to be too descriptive heavy either because I don't want to slow down the pace of the dialogue & action, but I do try to paint enough so the reader can picture it. With descriptions, I think it's a matter of finding a good balance.

    Thanks for tackling this.
    Your excerpt for Wish For the Moon really pulled me in. I'm intrigued.


  17. Celia, what a striking cover! Of course, I adore yellow roses. ;-)

    I also get the story down first and have to go back and add description; that's the hardest part of writing for me. How much depends largely, I think, on the overall style of the book. Romance readers don't tend to want too much but do want to "see" hero and heroine. Literary readers tend to care less about character description and more about setting. At least, that's the way it seems. I try to balance both. From comments I've received, it seems to work.

    Oh, and I'm a huge fan of Hemingway's novels but less of his short stories. Still, it does show that character description in literary fiction are fairly unnecessary.

  18. MAGGIE--I think I naturally have the urge to describe! Opposite you, I get carried away about what "Celia" sees, instead of my wonderful heroine or hero. This was pointed out to me in this way, and for the first time, I understood--"Show, don't tell" descriptions. Thanks--Celia

  19. LIANA--you and Maggie have it right, as much as I know. The dialogue and action is far more important, because that is the plot. Thanks for reminding me of a better way. I'm going to stop worrying so much about description. Celia

  20. Thanks so much, Steph--Yes, I'm understanding more and more that dialogue and action is the most important. And often, we might just get stuck on the dialogue...and let the action lag. I know that's a no-no!Celia

  21. LORAINE--that's right--you understand about literary writing more than I. I read your Sunday post on the Spa but did not respond. I wish you well with the continuing saga of Rehearsal.Thanks for you comments. I always a little something more when I talk to or listen to you. Celia

  22. Interesting that I should find your blog on this. I just started reading "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman where he talks about stripping the adverbs and adjectives out of your writing and then reading it out loud to see whether or not it still conveys what you want to say. A very fascinating and (more importantly) helpful book!