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I'm reading The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith (good stuff if you want to inform the use of emotion in your writing), and I've just come across Overwhelmed (feeling). It talks about the ways in which a surfeit of information in the world can make us feel uncomfortable.

This made me think about the amount of sensory information we are encouraged to include in our scenes in order to enable our readers to visualise the surroundings. It strikes me that with five senses available to us, it might be that we could be in danger of inserting too much information into the prose, especially if it's an otherwise short scene.

Consider:

Antag grappled frantically through the evocatively sun-lit, yet crowded train with the knife wielding Protag close on his rubber-clad heels and the sourness of breakfast coffee in his mouth. Failing deodorant scratched at nostrils, reluctant bodies thrust aside - reminders of childhood, flesh with the feel of jelly, cries of bewilderment and pain, the relentless rattle of wheel on track punctuating ragged breath, then unexpected darkness - a tunnel.

Even without the pernicious tang of adjective-overload, it surely just won't do to have so much description.

My question is, therefore: How do we know at which point enough is enough when it comes to including sensory information in a scene; i.e. which senses are the important ones for evoking a strong image for a reader and which can be safely left aside?

Research: I had a good rummage through existing questions but I can't find anything that's relevant. The nearest I can find is a question about How to describe 4 main characters at once without overloading the reader with information, which is interesting, but talks about characters rather than senses.

I did actually find someone with the opposite problem: How to develop a more vivid and descriptive writing style, but that doesn't really help me much.

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The Rule of Three.

In another context, this has been studied scientifically by psychologists. AKA the 80/20 rule, and the law of diminishing returns.

Specifically the study of mentality suggests we humans first exhibit difficulty remembering stuff when it exceeds three items (unless we are constantly exposed to the list by our job or our culture; e.g. if you listen to "country" every single morning on the way to work, you can probably rattle off the names of several country singers: But might have to pause after rattling off three songs by just ONE of the less famous ones).

Combine that with the 80/20 rule (or similar things), based on the Pareto Principle of natural phenomena: it is a proportional distribution that basically says 80% of the work is done by 20% of the effort. It isn't always true, but in a way it says perfection should NOT be the goal, there is a point of diminishing returns.

This gives us a two-pronged reason to pick three as the default number of descriptors; psychologically it is hard for an average reader to keep track of more, and adding a fourth or fifth descriptor is not adding enough new information to be worth reading the words. If you cannot describe it with three things, you are not focusing the attention of the reader properly.

Often we are looking for sight, sound, and scent; but we could be looking at temperature, dampness, emotional reaction, etc.

And of course there are exceptions: Novel situations or settings of wonder may demand much more description than making just three points about it; the same goes true for situational novelty, an important discovery, betrayal, or consummation of a relationship.

But here, follow the 80/20 rule again: 80% of the time, stick to three or less descriptors, enough to convey the most important sensory takeaway. Remember we are trying to guide the imagination of the reader, not straight-jacket it.

To a large extent, this interacts with the rule of consequences: what we choose to describe should matter to the character or story. What they notice is character revealing, or might play into the story; e.g. the CEO of the company keeps roller blades in the corner of his office (But remember Chekov's Roller Blades, don't show them if you aren't going to use them!)

  • The 80/20 (aka Pareto's) principle is link to the power law distribution, not Poisson's. – Evpok Jun 4 '18 at 9:54
  • @Evpok Thanks, I was wrong, corrected to Pareto principle. I've had Poisson on my mind, for work reasons. – Amadeus Jun 4 '18 at 10:38
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  1. In the first draft you put all of them in. You are discovering the scene for yourself. What you have written is your image of the scene. This is not what the reader needs to read, however. It's for you to understand what's going on, and that impacts how you write it.

  2. You even add more description as you revise. You've added some internals, but you can go further, or not. Since this is a flight scene you might keep it tight.

I'm currently reading a highly-acclaimed book called Manuscript Makeover (recommended by me, now, too!) and near the beginning the author discusses 'voice.' She refers to a passage from one of Kingsolver's books. She asks the reader to consider a bare bones version of a character's reaction to a corpse in a casket:

She hadn't looked at the body and couldn't contemplate it. She opened her eyes for fear that she would fall into the darkness.

and those two sentences are very good sentences, in my opinion. In a sense they answer your question: at one level less is more. Now, compare that pared down version with the actual version:

She hadn't looked at the body and couldn't contemplate it. She could not really think it was in there, not his body, (this is internal reaction of the PoV character, gets us 'in their head' ), the great perfect table of his stomach, on which she could lay her head like a sleepy schoolchild (lovely imagery, also describes his appearance); that energy of his that she had learned to crave and move to like an old tune inside her that she'd never learned to sing before Cole (hints of his personality). His hands on her bare back, his mouth that drew her in like a nectar guide on a flower, these things of Cole's she would never have again in her life (and their relationship).She opened her eyes for fear that she would fall into the darkness.

In a sense, this actual version follows Amadeus's excellent advice about three - Appearance of body, personality, and relationship to main character.

According to Manuscript Makeover, those added sentences are what gives an author (or character) 'voice,' and you need that if you hope to be successful. However, there is certainly the caveat that action scenes like yours move faster than being with a loved one who is lying in a casket.

But regardless, keep adding. External, internal. the characters are thrown to the side as the train takes a corner too fast. One of the passengers interferes, tries to tackle the antag, he shoves the woman down and keeps going. Etc. His internal reaction.

  1. As you revise, you see what doesn't belong. You cut it back out. I have a scene where my protagonist has a broken rib and he's moaning and whatnot, trying to stand, unable, breaking into a sweat, and in the middle of all this somehow the phrase 'birds were singing in the trees' had worked its way in. I needed to know the scene for myself, and so I was window dressing it in an earlier draft. But, in the immediacy of breaking a rib, the last thing he would notice is birds twittering about. So, those sorts of things eventually (or sooner) get pruned back.

  2. "It surely won't do to have so much description." Maybe, maybe not, action is fast paced. But, I think it's the 'right' description that you need. You could stretch a chase out if you like. I read an exercise somewhere about a teacher breaking a class into two groups. One was tasked with writing what they thought would be the most exciting thing possible. The other had to write what they thought was the most boring thing possible. But, they all had to write for the same length of time. Guess which group actually had more interesting passages at the end? Being forced to add the right details, take the time to identify the specifics that draw a reader in, can make (for example) even drying paint fascinating. On the other hand a bank heist that is too rushed will just be confusing. So - you eventually want to aim for the right description, but this is step four, not step one.

Keep writing, DPT

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@Amadeus and @DPT both provide great answers. I will add one consideration to their answers, an aspect @DPT mentions, but doesn't elaborate on.

It's not just how much description you have, how many senses are engaged, how many adjectives are used. Ultimately, your description needs to paint one concise picture. Your descriptors should employ different senses (including time, as @DPT points out), but all should point in the same direction.

@DPT gives an example of pain/fear, and the intrusion of singing birds. The birds are out of place, they do not belong. Contrast this with your example: pressing bodies, taste of coffee, rubber heels - it doesn't coalesce into one clear image. It's confusing.

I am almost inclined to say that @Amadeus's "Rule of Three" is an effect rather than a cause: a clear concise image can usually be painted well with three evocative sensory references. Like three points defining a plane: two are not enough, with four you're getting redundant. (Then again, maybe our brains are wired so that it's three images that draw the image for us.)

That said, sometimes the picture is already sufficiently clear, and more than one point of sensory information would just slow the scene down. In the middle of a pitched battle, for instance, one doesn't explore all one's senses. Other times, you can convey the fact that the character is overwhelmed, by providing more sensory information. (Overwhelmed by positive emotions is possible too - consider an exile returning home.) Or you can use three descriptors to draw a picture, and then a fourth to break it: for example, a peaceful pastoral landscape, and a gibbet.

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