Maybe the title was a little overdramatic, but that phrase has been rolling around in my head for a while, and I think I figured out why. In a recent post, The Economics of Description, I talked about whether it was important to describe everything and anything in a scene. After all, our readers have a right to visualize what the author is talking about. The real question is how much the description contributes to the story or its surrounding mood.
Consider the following description:
"His eyelids fluttered from too many sleepless nights, his bloodshot eyes struggling to show any sign of life as he tried to look across the desk. Exhaustion melted his face, the bags under his eyes hanging low and as lifeless as his pale white cheeks that sagged like an old hound's jowls, further exhausting an otherwise weary expression. Each breath rasped long and heavy, trying to push some life back into a tired body that yearned for one moment's rest."
At what point did you get the impression that the man in this description was tired? At any point did you feel that this state of being tired was overdone? Were you ever thinking, "Okay, he's real tired, get on with it"? The answer is different for every writer, and the answer could change depending on the part of the story that contained this passage. A long description can help by heightening a tense moment, sustaining the reader's anxiety a little longer, or it could completely wreck things by defusing an action sequence. Unless there is a specific reason why this discussion of a tired face should go on, limiting the description and getting back to the story is probably of greater benefit.
I will, as always, offer the reminder that description also sets a mood, so if this description were to come early on in the story and was an establishing scene, well, go with it. However, always ask yourself if you have gone too far with your descriptive sentences and paragraphs. If at any point you question whether you've overdone it, you probably have. It does not mean that the writing is bad - lots of great writing falls to the editor's pen simply because there's too much of it. Just remember that efficiency of description is just as important, and needs to be worked on just as much.
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