I discussed a book with a friend, and he disliked that the author described a person who is dying shortly after and has no further effect on the story over a page or more. The same would go for things; if I describe a room, should I include things that have no importance for the story?

How many of these story-irrelevant descriptions are too much? Would they annoy the reader? And if I completely avoid this, would the story have to less 'flesh'?

5 Answers 5


Your friend is right. Don't describe things that aren't important for the story. However, keep in mind that things can be important for a variety of different reasons. You may want to describe to establish:

  • Setting. This is obvious, and it's what most people think of.
  • Character: Peter's apartment was full of empty pizza boxes crusted with dried cheese. Neither the boxes nor the cheese are important to the story per se, but this detail tells us that Peter is a slob.
  • Mood: Think of the opening chapter of Dracula, where Bram Stoker describes the approach to the Count's castle. Most of the things described are not important in themselves, but they establish the mood of mystery and menace.
  • Theme: In a war story, you might not need to describe the bullet-riddled body your protag finds in the field. On the other hand, doing that might be crucial to illustrating that War Is Hell.

Strunk, White, King and the editor on the paper King interned at all agree, the key to successful writing is:

Omit Needless Words

As a further note Chekhov pointed out that if you place a loaded gun over the mantelpiece and nobody fires it before the end of the story it shouldn't ever even have been there. He was talking about plays but the principle is valid in all storytelling.

  • The maxim "Omit Needless Words" usually refers to your prose, not to the description itself. Commented Jan 7, 2011 at 14:30
  • Why then is J.R.R.R. Tolkien so successful? Do the hairs on a hobbit's foot really matter? It helps create a picture in the mind.
    – malach
    Commented Jan 7, 2011 at 14:34
  • @Ralph Rickenbach - JRR Tolkien is successful because that's the point of his work. You could reduce that argument to "is fiction necessary" to which the hard answer is "no". Tolkien's intention was to build what he saw as a "missing mythology" for the British people, in which point a reference that Hobbits have hairy feet is essential for completeness. The story of LOTR is like a byproduct of this project. The question presupposes that the author themselves considers the detail to be unnecessary in the business of telling the story. In which case the advice is "lose it".
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 7, 2011 at 14:51
  • @JSBangs: It's just a coincidence that it also applies to concepts as well as prose. If a concept is not in service of what you are trying to achieve in a story then it necessarily obfuscates your point and should be removed. Anything in service of your objective is necessary and must stay as with hairy hobbit feet referred to above.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 7, 2011 at 14:54
  • 3
    This is another rule that shouldn't be followed slavishly. Chekhov's Gun is a good thing to know... and then put in one that doesn't play a role in the story at all. Like a red herring. Describe it in soooo much detail. And then... Except in the next book, it turns out it should have played a role, and because it didn't, all hell breaks lose. Hah, so there. Of course, we are culturally conditioned to expect the gun to be one of Chekhov's. So we tend to be disappointed if it isn't one. Commented Jan 8, 2011 at 20:21

should I include things that have no importance for the story?

Everything you include in your text is by definition part of the story and will affect the reading of every other part: Every part is automatically important whether you want it to be or not.

The factors to take into account when considering whether to include something are:

  • is it interesting?
  • is it relevant/consistent?

Consider two extreme cases:

  • An unrelated character who is about to die is described at length. The reader's mind may now be seeded with thoughts of death, mortality, futility, tranquility, etc. (depending on the nature of the description) while they read the next part of the text, and their interpretation of it will be coloured by these themes.

  • A book that consists of a slim plot, riddled with tangential and meandering asides. This has the effect of exposing the reader to a vast field of disparate subjects. They are free to draw their own connections between topics and become very active in their interpretation of the text. They will judge the action of the main plot within the context of the wider world. In fact, the plot can even be so slim as to appear non-existent: The best example I can give of this is the film Koyaanisqatsi, but The Instruction Manual by Julio Cortázar and Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec are good examples in literature. You may not even have to try to make the deviations relevant to each other: the human mind will find stories in the most minimal stimulus, as shown by the experiments of Lev Kuleshev.

These illustrate that relevance is a complex and sometimes unintuitive issue. Further, relevance trumps interestingness. Consider The Princess Bride by William Goldman, ostensibly a rewriting of another book in which "tedious" parts of the "original" text form a sub-plot about its author.


Think, Stephen King vs Dean Koontz; Stephen King is big on describing things in deep detail in all his stories. Most of these things are relevent to the plot and some of them are relevent to the character. Dean Koontz on the other hand, has a tendency to describe things about characters that you either dont care about or are way too unnesissary, try reading the last Brother Odd book or By The Light of the Moon and really observe the way he discribes his characters, thier actions, thier history etc


Personal opinion; description is meant to place the reader in the same room with the character. They -- the reader -- need to be able to see, hear, smell, feel the same things as the character. If the character enters a new location the reader needs to be aware of their surroundings as well.

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