I'm testreading a novel for somebody I know. It's an adventure novel targeted at teens, with ~60k words. At one point in the first quarter, one of our protagonists comes across some huts. The huts aren't given a discription. These huts are later in the story used by the protagonists... and they still are given no description.

I talked about this with the author, and they said it was intentional. They said that they didn't feel that it was important; that it would just overwhelm the reader with unnecessary details that didn't further the plot - i.e. that they would only include the details that furthered the plot.

I feel that these details are better to include; I certainly noted the lack of them while reading through it. He's got sixty years of experience on me, though, so I'm hesitant to force my opinion without knowing a little more ;)

Are such details necessary?

5 Answers 5


It doesn't really matter how much more experience he has than you: if he's asking you to testread, he presumably wants your opinion as a reader. And this case, he didn't provide enough detail for you, the reader, to visualize the setting.

You can't stand in for all readers, but let him know, that for you, the more sketchy approach to describing that setting did not work. You aren't "forcing" an opinion unless you actually have a way to make him change his writing to match your preferences.

He will still make the final decisions as a writer, but there's no point having a testreader if a) that reader suppresses his or her reactions or b) the writer fights all the feedback.


The reader needs to be able to see the scene in their mind's eye. This does not mean that every reader needs to see it the same way. In fact, it is a virtual certainty that each reader will see it slightly differently, or even radically differently. We build our pictures of scenes from the stock of images and experiences in our heads. If two readers picture a scene the same way, chances are it is because they both watched the same movie.

This variety in the way people visualize scenes does not matter as long as it does not materially affect how they understand the story. In fact, it can be argued that we all see the real world differently as well, that our experiences and interests cause us to interpret the raw visual information from our eyes in different ways. Talk about a scene with a companion and it often becomes obvious that you and they are seeing it differently, that different details stand out for each of you. No two people experience life the same way, and no two people experience a story the same way.

So, it is by no means necessary (or possible) for a writer to provide so much detail that the scene appears in the mind's eye of the reader exactly as it appears in the mind's eye of the writer.

On the other hand, for the reader to experience the place as a real place, they do have to form some picture in their mind's eye. The text needs to provide enough telling detail to trigger a specific image in the reader's mind, even if it is quite different from the image in the writer's mind.

This business of finding the "telling detail" is at the heart of the writer's craft. It is essential to the ability to create a story that feels real to the reader. So the question is, when this novel says "hut", does this provoke a specific image in the reader's mind, or does it simply invoke the abstract platonic idea of a hut. If it produces a specific image, then the story works; it if invokes the platonic idea of a hut, then there is a blank spot in the canvas of the story.

Whether an individual word produces an image or a blank spot does not depend so much on the work alone as on the context in which it is used. If the context is specific enough that the reader has a mental picture of what the general scene looks like (true or false) then the word will produce an image and all is well. If they do not, then it will leave a blank spot in the canvas and all is not well.

Certain words, like "igloo", probably produce an image for everyone all by themselves. "Hut" is not such a word. It needs either context or description to evoke a specific image in the reader's mind.

Of course, the writer has an image in their mind. One of the reasons you ask others to read your work is to let you know when you have failed to paint your whole canvas. If you don't get an image from the word "hut" in this work, that is a fact that the author should take into account. It is only one data point, but if they ask for the data they should at least be grateful for it, even if they decide not to act on it.


In short:

There's a balance.

Whether your friend needs more description or not, it's hard to say. I'd say your friend needs more data points to determine if readers feel deprived or jolted out of the flow in that scene.

When it comes to description (or writing in general), I like to remember the mantra:

Tell the truth.

To explain what I mean, I need to answer another question first, one that speaks directly to your friend leaving out description:

Why explain things that don't play a vital role in the story?

Ah, but they do. Think of literally any movie (except, obviously, The Phantom Menace). In EVERY SHOT, there are things that don't play a role in the story. Shots of New York streets? The newspaper stand on the corner doesn't matter. A camera pan throughout a bar, only to rest on the protagonist's face? Doesn't matter to the story. The closing scene where a bird tweeting on a tree branch is the last thing we see? Useless at advancing the plot, if you ask me!

Ok, I think I've made my point. We wouldn't call those things useless because they help paint a complete picture, not because they play a role in the story.

This brings me back to my answer: "Tell the truth."

Truth is what is real to the character(s). How much do they see? How can I tell?

The most practical way for me to measure how much description I need is to put myself into the POV "camera". It's like I'm watching a movie in my head (lots of helicopter shots--it gets expensive). What is my eye drawn to on the landscape? Am I close to the object of focus or far away? What features stand out to me? Those are the important things. These are the building blocks of description; they create a sturdy environment for your readers to enter and fill in the gaps.

It's still a tricky business, description. Just remember that there's always a balance between backdrop (the things that don't play a direct role in your story) and focus (the things that play a direct role in your story). You need both.


Too much detail will make the story boring and too little will make it feel like something is missing. The key is to describe just what is needed.

Going back to the huts: why are the protagonists using them?

Are they a resting place? If so, there should be a little description of how hard and uncomfortable the ground is or how lucky the protagonists are to have found such a convenient spot for resting.

Instead, if the characters are hiding the huts while they wait to ambush the bad guys, you should give some description of the windows and what can be seen through them.

Description can also be used to convey the tone and feeling of the story. If it's an horror story, describe how the hut is scary, how it feels somehow weird and how the space beneath the bed is just big enough for something to be hiding there. Instead, if the focus is a merry story of camaraderie, have the characters make fun of each other and hut.


Too little of detail makes it fairly vague and hard for the reader to really create an imaginative image of the scene. Too many overwhelms and overloads the reader blocking the flow of reading. There is a fine balance between the two. Details for huts are really not that important unless it plays a factor in the story.

If the huts are made of straw and dried branches, and a fire comes and burns down the village, maybe the material might want to be known. Some others might imagine the huts to be made out of stone which won't burn down and cause confusion if the text reads different than the imagination.

If it doesn't matter what they look like, or what they are made out of, most people have a general idea of what a hut looks like, and as long as they know it is a hut, that really is all that matters.

Not everything needs detail and you don't want to end up writing 4 pages of description for everything. People generally do not like to see that in writing these days and I know I will skip whole pages if not chapters if it starts out with pages of description.

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