People advise to keep description to a minimum, or to make it worthwhile to the audience. I'm talking about description that isn't really necessary/important to the plot but is necessary/important to the characterization of the character (which might make it necessary to the story). For instance, in The Catcher in The Rye, Holden Caulfield describes a lot of stuff that don't really matter other than that his description also tells of his reaction/perception of that stuff, which in turn informs his characterization. Seeing this idea used in TCITR, I'm wondering if characterization could serve as a valid reason to describe otherwise "unimportant" details.

3 Answers 3


I think you answer your own question. The details are not 'unimportant' in your question because they form part of the characterization. If something is properly 'unimportant' then it can be cut without affecting anything else (and should be).


The purpose of fiction is to give pleasure. The question, therefore, is not whether a detail is important but whether it gives pleasure. Different types and levels of detail will give different kinds of pleasure in different kinds of works. The details of military technology in Tom Clancey, the details of legal procedure in John Grisham, the details of time and place in John Steinbeck, the fantastical details of the wizarding world in Harry Potter, all gives pleasure to different kinds of readers. For some works, a secondary cottage industry grows up dedicated to nothing but additional details, which is why you can get detailed plans for the Millenium Falcon or an encyclopedia of Dr. Who monsters.

This does not mean that all details give pleasure in all circumstances in all works, or to all readers. (Some readers will find the above mentioned details tedious in some of the above mentioned works. Personally the wizarding world had exhausted my patience by the end of book two. And I never did care where Chewie went to the bathroom.)

The litmus test for details, I believe, is how the contribute to the pace and mood of the work at any given moment, and as a whole, and whether they increase the reader's immersion in the scene or distract them from focusing on what matters in the scene. Details are neither good nor bad, they are good or bad in context.


Personally, I like to think of details as being filtered through some character's perception, and revealing something about the character's relation to the world at that particular moment.

Done right, this can reveal character, give a sense of the character's surroundings, and progress the plot (since the details the character notices can reveal that character's intentions).

For me, what bothers me is when a writer starts describing things that would either be so commonplace or so irrelevant to the viewpoint character that they wouldn't consciously notice them.

That said, this is probably a matter of opinion to some extent. Different readers will almost certainly have different ideas about how much (and what kind of) description they're OK with.

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