A reader needs enough information to enable them to picture scenes within a story: for example, characters and their surroundings. Overwriting can make a story drag and may lose the reader’s attention. Giving the right level of detail to keep the reader interested while preserving tension in the story is essential. Make sure everything you write is important to the story!
If a book has a scene that takes place in a restaurant, the reader expects to be given some information about the surroundings so that they can picture the scene, but they don’t need to know every detail of the chandelier, a description of every customer and member of staff, what everyone is eating, what cutlery is on the table and every word of every conversation taking place. Nor do they need a comprehensive list of every dish on the menu. What the reader does need to know is the purpose of the viewpoint character being in the restaurant, who they are with, if there are any other relevant characters in the restaurant (for example, has the viewpoint character spotted someone they know having an illicit encounter?), and some description of surroundings and maybe what the main characters have ordered. This should be enough to help the reader picture the scene.
However, if the scene in the restaurant were taking place in a television show or in a film, we would be able to see many of the tiny details for ourselves. But In a book, they’re just not necessary. Some description is essential so the reader can picture the scene, but the reader can be trusted to fill in the missing bits. It’s important to remember that the information given must move the story forward, rather than providing unimportant detail for the sake of it and to pad out the story.
Consider the overwriting in the made-up example below:
Lennie looked aghast at the steep hill before him. How long was it going to take to climb up there let alone search it? No point whinging. Best get on with it. The paths were narrow and rough and strewn with fallen rocks. Some rocks were grey, and others were mottled. At least it wasn’t raining. He looked up into the overcast, dismal, grey, cloudy sky. But it might rain in a bit. It certainly looked like it could. Had he just felt a drop of rain, or had he imagined it? He hadn’t checked the weather forecast that morning. That was remiss of him as he usually liked to watch the BBC news and weather report while eating his breakfast. He preferred the BBC over ITV. This morning, he’d had Greek yogurt – the authentic stuff, not the Greek-style muck – and fresh raspberries sprinkled with granola and drizzled with wildflower honey. He took his rucksack off his back and opened it up. He rummaged around in all the pockets until he found his iPhone 12. He tapped the weather app so he could see if it was going to rain. There was no signal. He should have known there would be no signal all the way up here in the Dark Peak.
Now with the overwriting removed:
Lennie looked up at the steep hill. He rolled his eyes. How long was it going to take to climb, let alone search? No point whinging. Best get on with it. The paths were narrow and rough and strewn with fallen rocks. The sky was overcast, but it wasn’t raining. Yet. What an idiot. He’d forgotten to check the weather forecast. He rummaged around in his rucksack. Where was the blasted phone? He sighed. It’s in the side pocket where you left it, you numpty. There was no signal. The Dark Peak. He should have realised.
Life involves moving around between places, which also applies to characters in a book. The reader does not need to know every detail about the bus journey to the supermarket and who the viewpoint character spoke to; whether they had to use a coin to get a trolley; what was on the shopping list; if they used a self-service checkout or not, and whether they brought their own bags with them.
The same applies to banal activities such as opening and closing doors. We all do this several times a day without thinking about it, so it’s not usually necessary to give the reader a sequence of events when a character walks into a room.
Tommy stopped at the glossy white door and pressed down on the chrome handle so that the door opened. He sighed and walked through into the study and beckoned for me to follow him. He turned and closed the door behind him. He scratched his head and pulled out a black swivel office chair on castors from the cluttered pine desk with three drawers that was situated in the far right-hand corner of the room and motioned for me to sit down. Avoiding the piles of papers all over the floor, I walked over the study to the chair and sat down. I craned my neck and discreetly tried to see what was written on the notepad on the desk.
Tommy beckoned for me to follow him. He closed the door. Was it his study? Whatever, it was a mess. He motioned for me to sit at the cluttered desk in the corner. I stepped round the mountains of papers strewn over the floor. No doubt there was some incriminating stuff there. I glanced down at the desk. I froze. Why was my real name scribbled on a notepad?
All the small details are not important. We know the door will be opened and closed. Tommy’s sighing and scratching his head are not that relevant. A description of the desk is not needed unless the fact that it is pine and has three drawers is a key fact. What is important is why the character’s real name is written on the notepad.
Characters have the potential to be wonderful and interesting people, and we all want to add in lots of description so that a character really stands out. However, over-describing what a character could know is common. For example, a viewpoint character may not have a detailed knowledge of makes and models of cars, so it would not be realistic for them to reel this information off. If Martin is a car buff and it is relevant to the story, then the first example shows this perfectly. If Martin is more into heritage railways, he might be more inclined to the second example.
Solly held the car door open. Martin hesitated. What a beautiful car. A Jaguar XK 120 3.4 from 1953, with double SU H8 carburettor.
Solly held the car door open. Martin hesitated. What a beautiful car. An old Jaguar of some sort.
Movement of body parts
It’s very easy to state the obvious when describing how characters do things with various bits of their bodies, but it’s not essential to include every detail. The reader knows how characters see, listen and carry out normal movements and functions. Most of us use our feet to kick, our ears to hear, our hands to grab, our heads to nod, our tongues to lick and our eyes to look. The meaning is still clear when the unnecessary detail is removed.
He looked at Cally with his pair of eyes.
He looked at Cally.
He listened to the haunting music with his ears.
He listened to the haunting music.
Pebbles licked her bowl clean with her tongue.
Pebbles licked her bowl clean.
Bim kicked the ball with his foot.
Bim kicked the ball.
She pulled her gloves onto her hands.
She pulled her gloves on.
Jazz nodded her head.
They bit into the apple with their teeth.
They bit into the apple.
Banjo sniffed at the ground with his wet, black nose, wagging his tail frantically. Was this where the body was buried?
Banjo sniffed at the ground, wagging his tail frantically. Was this where the body was buried?
Movement of eyes
The movement of eyes frequently gets mentioned by authors, when in reality we might not notice what people are doing with their eyes. It’s not that important to give the reader frequent nudges that tell them what everyone’s eyes are doing.
If you do want to mention eye movements, less is more. For example, ‘he returns his gaze to her’ would be clearer recast as ‘he looks up’.
What is important is that the viewpoint character can see what the non-viewpoint character is doing with their eyes. If the viewpoint character has their back to the non-viewpoint character, they won’t be able to see them, let alone their eye movements.
Show not tell
With the best will in the world and with the keenest eye, unnecessary words can still creep in.
He had just got into bed when he heard a car pull up outside.
He had just got into bed, when he heard a car pull up.
He got into bed. A car pulled up seconds later. He froze.
The reader knows that the car is outside and probably not inside wherever the man is in bed.
The second example shows rather than tells that the car is outside.
The third example shows rather than tells and also adds some tension.
Mrs Chand sauntered slowly along the promenade.
Mrs Chand sauntered along the promenade.
The adverb slowly is not needed here as sauntering is a slow walk.
Mim scoffed her ice cream quickly before it melted.
Mim scoffed her ice cream before it melted.
The adverb quickly is not needed as scoffing is eating quickly.
Too many adjectives
Using too many adjectives can be off-putting for the reader. It’s often better to use one compelling adjective rather than use several just for effect and to pad out the sentence
He liked to walk through the spectacular, fragrant, sparkling, wildflower meadow
He liked to walk through the spectacular wildflower meadow.
She never had a good word to say about her nasty, mouthy, overpowering, narcissistic brother.
She never had a good word to say about her narcissistic brother.
It’s not necessary to use several adjectives that all have the same meaning. Choose one that sums up what you want to describe. The meaning of the sentence will still be clear.
Miss Eva was renown for her kind-hearted, considerate, generous and courteous nature.
Miss Eva was renown for her kind-hearted nature.
He was a tight-fisted, mean and miserly skinflint.
He was a skinflint.
- Ensure that all description is pertinent and not just there for the sake of adding words to pad the story out. Let the reader work things out for themselves, including how the characters move around and how their body parts work.
- Everything you write should be relevant to the plot and move the story forward,
- Use adjectives wisely and remember that you don’t need to include too many – one strong adjective is best. Nor do you need to include several adjectives with the same meaning.
- Avoid giving characters knowledge that they would not be realistically expected to have.