On the recent Quality Standards Revision (DRAFT) thread, Noothgrush, the prestigious provider of profane and profound prose for posts (and I say that respectfully), made an amusing and valid point about over-describing characters in stories. I agreed and decided to create my own blog on the topic. I generally like detail in stories, whether I’m reading The Collected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe or Batman in the Sixties. Good description is provocative and can make a story come to life. However, description that is unnecessary or just plain bad can steer a story right into the rocks. This is just my opinion, but here are my thoughts on the subject.
1. Lengthy description should only be for what's really important in the story. If everything has an elaborate description, then nothing will stand out. Also, if you go into a lengthy description of something, the reader will think, "Okay, there must be something really important about this if so much emphasis is being placed on this!" When it turns out it wasn't important at all, the reader will feel let down.
Let’s say you do a story about an addict going through withdrawal. You could describe their physical and psychological condition in great detail, painting a graphic and effective portrait of their pain. You could also give a detailed description of the condition of their living quarters and certain objects in the room in order to set a mood. However, going into great detail about things like the jewelry their dealer wore during their last drug buy or the food in their girlfriend's fridge is unnecessary and pointless, and it detracts from the most important elements of the story. Let’s say you have a story about someone encountering a monster. The appearance, actions, and dialogue of the monster, the character’s reactions and feelings, and the setting in which this all takes place are the important things. I’ve read very effective stories in which the setting was described more vividly than the characters, or the characters were barely described at all (at least physically). You have to decide what’s important in your story and reserve the most detailed descriptions for those elements.
2. If someone's descriptions are really bad, then having lots of them only hurts the story. If you write something like, "His footsteps sounded like grubs popping in the toaster oven!" then I'm just going to find another story, okay? ~takes bite of delicious toast prepared in toaster oven~
There’s a page on Snopes.com with bad descriptions (http://www.snopes.com/humor/lists/metaphor.asp), and there’s also a yearly contest which honors terrible opening sentences (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulwer-Lytton_Fiction_Contest). These are in fun, but there are people who give terrible descriptions in stories they intend to be taken seriously. I once heard about a certain comic which came out a few years ago (I won’t tell what it was or who wrote it because I don’t want to start a debate among any comic book fans who might be reading). Fans kept talking about how horrible an issue it was and how horrible the writing was. I thought, “Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad!” Then I read it for myself and thought, “Wow, this is terrible…” It was bar none one of the worst comic books I’ve ever read in my life. Like I said, I’m generally a fan of detail and description in writing. However, if the descriptions in a story are terrible, or are there just for a pathetic and obvious attempt at creating shock value and/or ripping off slasher films, then it would’ve been better if the writer had just kept it simple.
There's a time for lengthy descriptions and a time to keep it simple. So, any thoughts?