I hear quite often from readers that they don’t like “too much description” in their stories. In contrast, I often say that I love description. I’ve finally figured out what the difference is. Or I think I have. And it’s genre based.
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and in those genres good description is absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of a story. If you’re introducing me to an alien race, or letting me explore an alien landscape, or taking me to an exotic fantasy world, you darn well better give me enough description to center me in the world you’re trying to create. If it’s something readers haven’t seen before, then the writer needs to do the “seeing” first and relay that information to the readers so they don’t get lost as the story moves along.
On the other hand, if you’re writing mystery or crime fiction, or mainstream fiction, then you don’t need to give the readers a detailed description of a hotel bar, or a shopping mall, or a contemporary dining room. The readers have seen these and need only the bare essentials to place themselves firmly in that scene.
Let me give a couple of examples. I was reading a fantasy novel back years ago and there were numerous references to people riding “horses.” Then, at about 80 pages in, I found a sentence that mentioned one of the “horses” as having fangs and claws. I was pretty put out. When you describe something as a “horse,” the reader is going to get a certain visual image that will not include fangs and claws. If the creature really is a horse the reader doesn’t need any more description that that, but if it’s something different than a horse the author better give us enough description to let us know. To do less is to cheat and disrespect the reader.
The second example I have comes from a contemporary thriller. The hero went into a business office and had to wait to see the boss. We then got a page and a half description of the waiting area, from the secretary’s desk, to the chairs, to some boxes piled up along one wall. Say what! I thought maybe the office had some important role to play later in the book, but that was not the case. The author just decided to describe in detail a scene that pretty much everyone has seen.
The fantasy novel had too little description; the thriller had too much.
I do find, however, that I can forgive too much description more easily than I can too little. I can always skip over useless description, but I can’t fill in what isn’t there in the first place. And many genres need that extra description. Historical stories, for example, need more than contemporary ones. I also find that I prefer descriptions of natural landscapes to those of human ones. I really don’t want to read a description of a mall, but I rather like descriptions of a desert range or a wild swamp.
Finally, the best kind of description, in any genre, is that which sets a mood in addition to giving the basic elements of setting. I see this particularly in horror fiction, where the author describes a common setting, like a mall, but does it in such a way as to create a sense of menace. Any story can benefit from this kind of thing, though.
Ultimately, as is often said of dialogue, if description can be made to serve more than one purpose, both the author and the reader win. I’m one reader who’ll certainly be happy.