One key to having an appropriate amount of description in your story is proportion. The amount of time you spend describing an object should be relative to its story purpose.
☐ Settings and objects are described in proportion to their importance.
It’s easy to spend lots of time describing the places, objects, and people you can visualize clearly, and to gloss over the things you’re fuzzy about. But if you’re fuzzy, the reader will be, and that’s not what we want. Instead, provide rich descriptions of things that are important to the story, and gloss over the things that are incidental.
If you’ve based a minor character on someone you really know, you might spend a lot of time describing her, because you can visualize your friend so well. Sometimes, even characters not based on real people impose themselves so forcefully on a writer’s consciousness that he spends a paragraph on her description and backstory, even though she’s just a bit player. This kind of description is excessive, and therefore needs to be excised.
Beware critique partners who, seeing only a fragment of your work, encourage you to describe something in more detail. Do this only if it will be important to the story.
When I was editing Alara’s Call, several critique partners, seeing only the first few pages, told me I needed more description of the sitting room where the first scene is set. I put description in, but that only slowed things down. The scene ran too long.
The sitting room is not story important. You see it once more before the inciting incident, and then Alara is off and never returns to that room for the whole rest of the book. What’s important is what is said there. So I scaled back the description to the minimum needed to avoid blank stage syndrome.
If you take a long time to describe something, it had better be crucial to the plot, or at least deeply important to the viewpoint character. In this excerpt from “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson examines a hat that has fallen into Holmes’s hands:
It was a very ordinary hard black hat of the usual round shape, hard, and much the worse for wear. The lining had been of red silk, but was a good deal discoloured.… the initials “H.B.” were scrawled upon one side. It was pierced on the brim for a hat-securer, but the elastic was missing. For the rest, it was cracked, exceedingly dusty, and spotted in several places, although there seemed to have been some attempt to hide the discoloured patches by smearing them with ink.
Holmes and Watson discuss this hat for another full page. Such time could not be spent on an ordinary object, not even for Doyle to show off how clever Holmes is. The hat only warrants this much description because it is the first link in the chain that leads Holmes to the Blue Carbuncle.
An exception to this guideline is the use of red herrings in mysteries. An object that leads the protagonist down a false trail may be described in some detail, especially if it seems important to the viewpoint character at the time.
As with all else in fiction, the proper balance of description rests in the viewpoint character. Describe things through their eyes, and give things the importance and attention the character would give them.