Why over-describing ruins a story

“I was texting with Anne and she’s like, ‘can’t you help me out?’ I said, ‘well, I’m broke. And I’m working on this proposal.’ And really, it’s not about the ten dollars…”

I overheard that on the elevator (sorry! I’m nosy). Two sentences, and I’m already creating this “Anne” in my mind. Always asking people for favors, then getting into more trouble. Like when she borrowed a few bucks for gas and then locked her keys in the car, which cost another $50 to fix (that she didn’t have).

My mind just takes the description and runs with it.


Remember that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are sitting on a park bench, and Woody’s sizing up each person who walks by in a few biting sentences? It’s maybe the best scene in a movie full of great scenes.

It’s fascinating what our brains can do with mere fragments of information. Our unconscious dredges up these images that we had no clue were even in there. Then it flings them at us like we’re Andrew W.K. at the Gathering of the Juggalos.

This is all fun and exciting — until I sit down to write. Because as an author, I want to show you exactly how things look in my brain. Somehow I forget all about what it’s like to be a reader.

And yet somehow,too, the great ones resist this impulse — they understand instinctively that readers will take what they’re given and expand on it in magical ways. They’ll bring their own associations to the story and make it their own.

That’s why an author can describe a room using one well-chosen detail, and it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing. Because nothing’s missing.

There is a legendary story (origin unknown — often attributed to Hemingway) about a discussion some writers were having about short stories. Specifically: how short can a short story really be?

In the legend, Hemingway says he can write a story in six words. His companions are shocked. They wager Hemingway that he can’t do it.

But of course he does. His story?

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

Whoever came up with this — she’s a genius. That’s the power of a story unleashed on a human brain. What happened when you read it? You formed some ideas about: what happened to the baby; who the parents are; what the parents look like; how the parents are feeling;  who is reading the notice; and so on, ad infinitum.

Whatever you came up with was there in your conscious mind in a flash, moving at the speed of electricity.

This explains why writing prompts are so powerful. You know the feeling of staring at a blank screen and, well, blanking. Too many possibilities. But give the blocked writer a prompt and the ideas come streaming out like smoke from a chimney.

The prompt introduces a valuable constraint. It doesn’t take much — as little as a few words — but gaining the constraint actually unleashes immense creativity.

All an author does is introduce constraints on the reader’s mind. Over-describing happens when you go too far, introduce too many constraints, more than the reader needs.

Just like the author sitting down to compose, the reader needs something. If she wanted a story with no constraints at all, she’d just look at a blank page all day and imagine stuff.

The reader wants some boundaries. She wants to know if the character is a man or a woman, their hair color, the last thought they had. She wants to know if we’re in the present day, or in 1920, or in 3500. And she’ll probably want some other stuff (hey, cut me some slack, I never said I was writing a story here!). But wherever the description stops is where her brain will start.

So is there a guideline here? How about: “provide as little constraint as possible — without providing too little.”

Not much of answer. But that’s why writing is hard.

Photo Credit: Vince Kusters via Compfight cc