How important is it to describe physical surroundings?

Following my post from last week on describing the physical attributes of characters, here’s another hoary old question that crops up on a regular basis. How important is it to describe physical surroundings?

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This is tough, because there really is no good answer. Sometimes you don’t need the insane levels of detail you get in, say, The Lord of the Rings, where practically every leaf and twig are described during certain passages. In that particular novel, it all works (at least for me), because it gives the thing such a vibrant, three-dimensional atmosphere in which all senses are heightened in the mind of the reader. However, that much description in a fast-paced page-turning thriller would be inappropriate, and deeply dull.

There are certain classic novels where I actually get very frustrated with the industrial quantities of description. For example Moby Dick, in its unabridged form, contains loads of additional asides about whaling and descriptions that frankly hold up the (brilliant) plot.

Then again, during other novels, I sometimes feel dismayed at a lack of information or description.

For me, when considering how much description to include, I try to consider a number of factors.

  1. In epic fantasy or science fiction, a lot of description is sometimes necessary to fire the imagination to its fullest, immersing the reader in that world.
  2. Anything that causes the reader to stop reading really should be cut or rewritten into simpler form. Sometimes a house is simply a house, a garden simply a garden. Not every setting needs to be described in pages of detail.
  3. Choice of words is obviously a massive factor. Adjectives and so on need to be carefully considered.
  4. Not all the senses necessarily need to be stimulated at once, but it is good to have at least a couple really well heightened in a good descriptive passage.
  5. Description that tells the reader what to think is generally to be avoided. I’ll admit as a writer I am sometimes guilty of ignoring my own advice, but it isn’t always advisable to tell the reader what to feel about a given place. Calling a forest “sinister” for example, is perhaps better conveyed by describing the kinds of tree contained therein. Perhaps they have gnarled, twisted branches, they block out the light, etc. Then the reader immediately has a picture and therefore a sense of how to feel without being told.

Ultimately taste also plays a part in the above. Some really think The Lord of the Rings should have been more thoroughly edited but I disagree. In my own work, I hope I strike a decent balance between vivid description and not overegging the pudding, but doubtless there will be times, perhaps many times, where I fall short of this ideal.

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