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A companion question for How much description is necessary, how much description is too much?

I close my eyes, I can visualise my MC's bedroom (for example) in tiniest detail: the accent wallpaper, the collection of spaceship models, the view out of his window...

Of course, a clutter of irrelevant details would quickly lose the reader. So every detail I mention ties to either who the character is, to a worldbuilding element, or to setting the particular scene.

There is also the pacing to consider: if the scene is meant to be a breathless chase, there's hardly time to observe the scenery. But since we've started with a bedroom example, let's say the scene is a lazy Saturday morning, so there's leisure to notice details, and in fact going slowly over the view fits with the general peacefulness.

Even so, how much description is just too much?

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    Possibly related: At what point does a POV character noting their surroundings go from showing/telling to an infodump? (Full disclosure: My own question.) – a CVn Feb 2 at 20:46
  • I'd be surprised if you aren't describing well. But, in addition to: who the character is, to a worldbuilding element, or to setting the particular scene..., I'd say tie it into backstory and emotion, too. As often as possible. "The curtains were of a fine lace fabric" is one thing, but "The curtains were of the fine lace fabric that she recognized with a shock as repurposed from her deceased sister's wedding dress" is quite another. – DPT Feb 3 at 23:00
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Description is too much, when the author wants to explain the scene as if it were a movie instead of a piece of writing. In a movie, the objects in the background are all part of the scene. The story is told by the camera, and the audience sees whatever is on the screen, including the main character's face. In a book, the main character may be telling the story. If you were telling a story to a friend, then can you really see yourself? You can see parts of yourself - your arms, your legs, the front part of your body, maybe a little bit of your nose, maybe your glasses (if you wear one), but you cannot see your whole self. If you were to stand in front of the mirror, then you can just see your reflection, not your true body. So, in a book, anything related to the main character's appearance would probably be a given. Your main character may wake up one day and dress for school or work. Your main character may just care about the work uniform placed on the chair the previous day. They don't care about the color or the style, because the main character wears exactly the same clothes to work everyday, and any such detail would be irrelevant. The main character may explain to the reader that (s)he has to wear dark blue top and black pants to work, and (s)he has the correct type in the closet, and that's all that matters to the narrator. If the narrator feels cold, then the narrator may complain that (s)he has to wear a thin, cotton, short-sleeved shirt as a work uniform. There you go. Now, you picture that the top is thin, made of cotton, and short-sleeved.

So, the answer to your question varies. If you are the type of person who just wants to wear appropriate clothing to work, then you may just be interested in how work-appropriate the clothing is. If you are the type of person who wants to look good at work, then you would probably choose something that is both work-appropriate and good-looking. If that good-looking characteristic includes the type of fabric or the quality of fabric, then you should mention that.

Now, if you are telling the story in third person, looking at all the characters as an outsider, then you need to know what the story is about. If the story is about your main character becoming acquainted with the new social class, then do you really need to elaborate on the fine details of food on the table, down to the molecules and atoms? Well, if the molecules and atoms of the food are relevant to the plot, then you would probably have to talk about them. But if they are irrelevant, then why are you including this? Anything that is not relevant to the story can be edited out in the final draft, unless you know your reader will enjoy this bit of information in spite of the story.

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You have too much description if your reader gets bored

It may seem like a tautology, but there is no real other answer as it depends on a few variables.

  1. Your reader. If you are writing fantasy, readers will generally want more detail than a YA contemporary fiction. Some readers like a lot of detail, some like very little. Read recent popular book in your genre to see.
  2. What is happening. You mentioned this before, but in an action sequence you will want less (non combat related) detail. Conversely, I find extra detail at the beginning of the scene helps a bit. There should never be any scenes with no motion and massive info dumps are never fun.
  3. The packaging. Classic show not tell here. Avoid was verbs ect...
  4. The density. Info dumps are bad. A word or two can go a long way. And if it needs to be longer a sentence or two. All sprinkled through the work.
  5. A few items of interest will allow the reader to infer a lot of the rest of the room. Eg. If he as a ps4 and a star wars poster, we get he's a nerd and can pretty much imagine the rest of the room. The idea is to describe one thing well and let us infer about the rest.

Anyway, I stole some of this from one of the Sanderson lectures on youtube. Link here. Which goes into him talking about how to keep description dense and useful.

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