Descriptions – Subtle vs Elaborate

High fantasy readers should know Robert Jordan and his work with The Wheel of Time series. Sadly he is no longer with us but his legacy is continued with Brandon Sanderson. In The WOT novels I had found a glorious yet over abundance in descriptions when shown people, places and of course, things. He was meticulous in showing you the precise details of his imagery and in no short way intensified his scenes leaving your imagination in his very capable hands. Facts are that not authors do this, and some with good reason.

Conversations sprung with the topic “Is less equals more the new way of writing?” Which begged questions such as “How much is left for the reader to imagine on their own. How important is hair type and color to a character who has only one scene? Does it really make a difference to the reader if we knew the status of everyone’s cheekbone height?

I would like to provide an example that will showcase my point. To save time in a rebuttal, know that I completely understand the flow and use of words to detail, saturate, and coat the reader’s eyes in a flamboyant and crisp view of the world the author wishes to make live. But is there a point where a reader just “gets it” and wants to move on with the scene at hand? And is more detail overkill at some point?

In the example below, choose for yourself where you feel the most satisfied with the detail of the object and scene in question. Ask yourself, if the goal is to feel something or see something specific in your mind and when is it you think that picture has been painted enough.


Casey watched an old mustang drive down the road. It reminded her of her bastard ex boyfriend.


Casey watched an old black mustang speed down the road. The vehicle alone reminded her of the bastard ex boyfriend who used to beat her.


Casey heard the roar of an old mustang power down the worn down road. Its faded black shell blurred as the car blasted past her. The ferocious vehicle, in its timeless flight, caused a memory to surface. Her once beloved boyfriend once proudly drove such a classic. He also cared more for his old car than for the woman he loved. The proof came when his fists preferred her tender face over and over again.


Casey stood by the bus sign awaiting her travel out of Kentucky. The heat had all but made her drenched under the relentless sun. From out in the distance a powerful engine signaled an unfriendly encounter. Casey looked on to witness a ghost coming haunting her. Not a real ghost in the truest sense. An old faded mustang sped down the cracked and worn road without a care or mercy to follow. The black exterior of the metal beast reflected an intense darkness adding a blurred glare to Casey’s view of it. As it crossed her path, a long forgotten memory surfaced once more for the joy of ruining her moment alone. A vehicle of the same type once belonged to a man she once believed was the pride and love of her life. If only the dream was lasting. But his shameless love for his priceless mustang caused more than just a few sparking fights between them. One of them even ended with his fist claiming Casey’s gentle face. Had he struck her any harder, she feared she might have broken a tooth. The memory faded, much as the sound of the furious engine bent on letting the world know, it was always there, it was always loud.


The color in Casey’s old and withered skin drained away from the scorching heat of the relentless Kentucky sun. Soon, the bus would arrive and she would finally be rid of that god-forsaken town. She patted her brow with an old handkerchief she made when she was just a little girl. The edges were embroidered with a Celtic design, most her townsfolk were unfamiliar with. Such was a heritage she kept to herself. Just when the deafening silence and blistering heat held no favors for the old woman, a dissatisfied visitor made it’s presence known in the form of a howling beast. It’s shell was faded in decades old ebony. It’s hoot, collapsed and withered from too many days rotting in the sun. But its engine, gave a clear and defined roar. Casey knew, just from the sound alone, it was an ancient, yet powerful mustang, still alive after so many years. It whipped down the road without a care in the world, crunching and crushing old pavement. Nothing stood in it’s way. Not the thickly dense heat, not the emptiness of space, nothing. Casey watched it with a bitter glare. Only too soon had a memory involving that dastardly type of vehicle awaken its ugly head at the poor old woman. A car like that once was in the possession of an old love of hers, back when she was a rebellious teenager. The young blond man had the hots for her and his priceless mustang. There was always jealousy in her heart, but she knew better than to come between a man and his fixer upper. Yet, upon a certain night, there was no escaping the wrath of her love. All she wanted was a place to sit and paint her fingernails. The rose red was pretty, she thought. Pretty enough to even make her man desire her more than that car she sat in. A distraction caused her to look up and spill a few drops onto the leather. Before she had time gasp at her clumsiness, her man swooped down and pulled her out of the car with angered grip. He didn’t ask for an excuse, he only saw the disgusting mess she made. When Casey tried to apologize, her man only answered with a closed fist to her jaw. His callous knuckles split her skin up bad. Blood matching the delicate crimson on her lips. It was a wicked and undeserving blow that sent Casey to the ground instantly in tears. The memory of it stung for years, as time went it it faded into a quiet whisper, until the roar of the metal beast disturbed it once more. Casey wanted nothing to do with what passed her by on that lonely and old road, but as she turned her head she noticed the license plate  under the decrepit car. Her eyes widened. It held the same letters and numbers as her ex’s. Casey couldn’t believe it. When the old car finally vanished, she made up her own mind that it was just a trick played on her by the sun. It had to be. The car had been destroyed since late 69.


Each example was meant to describe more and more the quick little scene until the last example flat out told the story which no one would have gotten unless they read it. But did Example D seem too much? Did Example C seem like a good pace of description. Granted Example E did more than add description, but it also added story to the description to ripple the effect.

Did you need to know the woman was old? Did you need to know her handkerchief had Celtic Embroidery on it? Did you need to know how hard the ex hit her? At what point do you as a reader understand the scene and want forward momentum continue so the story doesn’t drag? Or do you prefer to have as much saturation as possible so that there is no room for doubt on the image the author wishes to convey? The easy answer is that all authors have a style and it fits with the story they’re telling, and that’s perfectly fine. But can you dwindle down some of the details and get the same effect without splurging on the moment at hand? That is what I wonder.


No more words.


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