Descriptions and Imagination

When does description become too much in a story?  Writer Patrick McManus said that if you have a character going upstairs in an old house, and you describe it as thirteen steps, ending at a landing three feet by four, with two doors on the left hand side and a two by three window at the end of an eight foot long hallway…you’re obviously going to lose the reader.  But if you write that the character climbed creaking stairs to a cobweb-draped landing and crept through a doorway, the reader can see the setting just as easily.  Patrick pointed out that most readers want to visualize the setting themselves and only need a little description to drop them into the scene.

The same holds true, I believe, for character description.  I recently saw a posting where someone wanted to know what eye color to give the character in their story.  This person was trying to decide between ‘blue-violet’ or ‘stormy grey’.  Have to say the person lost me there.  First off, preceding ‘grey’ with ‘stormy’ makes me think of romance novels.  While my sister loves them, I personally don’t.  Second, why couldn’t a character simply have grey eyes?  Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen grey eyes. 

I agree with Patrick.  I want just enough description to point my imagination in the right direction.  I want to spend time with a character that I recognize, not one that is described down to the color of the hair in their nose.  And I guess I also want to choose my own shades of grey.  Which makes me laugh because earlier I mentioned pulling out a story I wrote years ago and starting to rework it.  So many parts make me cringe.  I admit I gave the character grey eyes.  Although I spelled it ‘gray’ and wrote about wind blowing black hair into ‘slate gray eyes’.  I’m laughing as I write this, because why can’t a character ever have just plain blue, brown, or green eyes?  Tell me a character has brown eyes, and I’ll immediately picture the shade I want to look into as I read. 

So what do you think about description?  When does it become too much, when does it destroy the reader’s imagination, and conversely, when is it not enough?  Any favorite descriptions you’ve come across?

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