How much description should you provide in your story?

At the writing group I started attending this year it frustrates some of the other members that they don’t get a real sense of place in my story. They don’t get descriptions—of people, or of places. They want more.

For me, sometimes, when I read their stories, I want less. I want my readers to use their own imagination to flesh out the characters. I don’t need to know that the protagonist has long red hair that falls in ringlets to her waist; that she has green eyes that reflect the colour of the grass; that she has a tiny rosebud mouth just ripe for kissing, and skin that freckles easily in the sun, and on and on. I don’t need a photo-ID. Maybe all I need to know is that her red hair frizzes up when it rains.

Likewise, I don’t need to know down to every minute detail exactly what the house looks like.

In fact, when I read books with long descriptive passages I often skim them.

It can have interesting consequences. There are books I re-read frequently, and it’s only years later that I suddenly realise one character has red hair, for example, when all those years I have been imagining them with black hair. Or that someone has freckles, or ivory skin. In fact, I recall one book—I think it was Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness—where I never realised the main character, Genly Ai, was black, and I know she told us.

Science fiction and fantasy writers —and writers of historical fiction—often need to include more description about their worlds to enable the reader to see the place they are writing about.

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