Don't Tell Me Too Much: The Evils of Over-Description

2:16 PM Gemma Fitz 5 Comments

Last year, I read a book.

It wasn't a horrible book, and I was pretty engaged for the first several chapters, though it seemed to be taking a rather long time to get to what I thought the book was supposed to be about. But it eventually did, and the protagonist finally left home to go and make his way in the world or whatever.

The book told about how the protagonist left the castle where he used to live and set off into the world. And then he looks back at the bottom of the hill, and the book goes into a long descriptive passage about what the castle looks like and everything about the castle, and if my memory serves me correctly, about the political system of the fantasy land the book took place in, and to be perfectly honest, I was bored.

This really is a very common problem in a lot of stories I've read (particularly fantasy) and also a lot of stories I write. And there is a proper place for world building, description, and character development.

So how do you know when you're telling too much?

I'm glad you asked.

Don't Tell Me When:

The information is unimportant to the story.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I have read so many lengthy, flowery, descriptive passages about things that aren't even important to the story. And it's super boring. So if it doesn't help the story along, cut it. (This includes most setting descriptions and most physical character descriptions, but not all, so evaluate any information carefully before cutting or leaving it.)

The information interrupts the flow of the story.

Sometimes authors try to tell the reader something very important that they need to know, but they do it in the wrong place. They take time to tell us that the economy of the country is failing while we're all holding our breath to see whether the hero is going to win the sword fight. They describe the girl who is to become the hero's girlfriend in minute detail, when we just want to know if he's going to save her or not. Make sure you're not getting in the way of the story with the "important" information. Move it, or give it to us in tiny, subtle bites.

The information is taking too long to tell.

It should ring a warning bell when you've spent an entire page (or more) describing the protagonist's house, or telling about the political system in your story world. Because even if your protagonist's house is super cool, or the political system is incredibly fascinating, it may be you're obsessed with old houses, or that you're a politics geek, and I can pretty much guarantee you that some people, at least, are going to be bored when they try and read it.
So keep it short. Try to tell me in as few words possible. If it really does take a lot of time to explain, break it up, and feed it to me bite by bite, interspersed with lots of action and dialogue. Don't make me eat too much at one time.

The information doesn't flow naturally from the story.

Don't force what you want to say onto the page. If there isn't an easy, natural moment for you to mention the romantic interest's violet eyes, don't mention it. (In fact, if your romantic interest has violet eyes, don't mention it at all. I don't want to know. :P) Forced writing sounds, well, forced. Wait until it comes easily.

The information is only there to show off your knowledge.

You've spent two hours researching trains. Or maybe I'm underestimating it. You probably stayed up until three in the morning researching trains just for this one stupid scene. You now know basically everything the internet could tell you about trains. And so when you write that stupid scene where your protagonist is climbing around on the train roof, trying to find a way to stop the train, you might as well put all that research to good use and tell your readers just how much you know about trains. Right? Wrong. Don't do it. I know it's tempting. Just don't.

Do Tell Me When:

The information is crucially important.

Still don't info dump, but if there's something I need to know, I need to know it. Readers won't be happy if you don't tell them it's winter, and then make the protagonist knock out the villain with a snowball at the climactic moment. (Not that you'd do that, I hope.)

The information helps set the mood.

To continue with the snow idea, telling us that the protagonist's footsteps crunched in the soft snow might help us feel the suspense as he goes to turn off the computer that's set to destroy the world. Describing the protagonist's grandfather might give a sense of security and comfort. Wording is key here.

It's easy to disclose the information by accident.

If you find yourself mentioning a character's blonde hair without even thinking about it, chances are the readers won't get distracted by it either (unless it's late in the story and they already have drawn up the ultimate picture of the character in their minds as having brown hair). If it happens--unless it sound stupid (like "...running a gentle hand through his curly blonde hair...")--let it happen.

It's funny.

Seriously, you can ignore all the rules I've already laid out, so long as it's funny. I'm currently reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and he disobeys every single one of those "Don't Tell Me" rules. And you know what? I don't mind. Because it's hilarious! He can be as random, off the wall, and long winded as he likes, as long as he makes me laugh, and I'll keep reading.
I don't ship tenrose. This gif was just too accurate not to use.

That book I read last year wasn't a horrible book. I rather enjoyed it. I wasn't overly excited about it, but mainly for other reasons. Not because it lost track and told me too much occasionally.

So don't stress too much. When it comes down to it, each reader has a different interpretation of over description, and you can't please everyone. A passage here and there which tells too much won't necessarily kill the book for your reader. It will probably just annoy them slightly.

Still, you don't want to do that.

Unless you're Stephen Moffat.

What bores you as a reader? Do you like books that tell everything, nothing, or somewhere in between? (Where?) How do you try to keep your stories from crossing the line into boredom? Oh, and do you write humour? (I love humour.)


  1. Yup. I love humour. Great post. But even Steven Moffat doesn't tell his audience too much. ;) (although he annoys them in other ways. :P)

    1. Yay!!! Yes, humour is awesome. Ugh...Steven Moffat the troll!

  2. Another great post! I love clean humor. Hitchhiker is a hilarious book. I've only heard the beginning and some parts later on, but I really enjoyed what I heard.

    I like books that tell me things somewhere in between. Huge info dumps can get rather monotonous after awhile, but when I don't know enough, that's also annoying. A happy medium is what I like.


    1. Yes, humour is amazing. Unfortunately, Hitchhiker does have some swearing and slightly more mature content in it...but in between that, I love it so much!!!

      Same here. Though if I have to have either info dumps or nothing, I'd have to say I prefer nothing. Info dumps REALLY annoy me, and I have enough of an imagination that I can fill in most of the gaps an author may leave in his world building. But happy mediums are best. :)

      Thanks for the review!

    2. Ugh...sorry. That should be comment. (This is what happens when you've been on for almost a year...)


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