Part of achieving balance in your descriptions is managing the details. While on the one hand it’s possible to give the reader sensory deprivation by not providing enough details, on the other hand you can give the reader sensory overload by including too many details, especially if they are the wrong kind of details. Relevant details are necessary. Irrelevant details are distracting.
☐ Details are relevant and add to the reader experience.
Unless you’re writing literary fiction, don’t throw in lots of poetic description for its own sake. Especially if what you are describing is the landscape. That worked for nineteenth century readers who didn’t have a thousand TV channels, video games, and smartphone apps clamoring for their attention. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy wrote in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Don’t write for those readers. Every one of those readers is now dead, and they aren’t going to buy your book.”
The key, as with so much else in fiction, is character. When Sherlock Holmes walks on a scene, he will notice every blade of grass and stray scent. Normal people, however, will notice what’s important to them. Notice that the descriptions in Doyle’s stories don’t include everything. They include only what Watson notices, because he, not Holmes, is the viewpoint character.
Put yourself in the place of your viewpoint character and consider his frame of mind and his background. If he’s the kind of person who’s keenly aware of his surroundings, he might notice the book missing from the shelf or the furniture that’s moved slightly. But if he’s preoccupied or habitually absent-minded, he won’t.
Consider the different kinds of things different people notice. One of my great-grandmothers was the sort of person who would forget to eat. She couldn’t cook, and she found food to be sort of a bother. So if she came to your house for dinner and you had a batch of broccoli cooking in the steamer, she’d likely ignore it and comment on the flowers or the decor instead. That was her personality. If I were writing a novel from her point of view, I’d want to remember that and focus on the things she would notice.
Of course, once she is actually eating dinner, then the details of what’s being served become relevant. I can’t avoid describing the smell of broccoli when it’s sitting there on the viewpoint character’s plate. At that point, the broccoli becomes relevant. It adds to the reader experience only insofar as it puts the reader in the scene.
If the purpose of the scene is that someone has poisoned the broccoli and everyone will wind up in the emergency room except the poisoner himself and one kid who didn’t eat any of it, then the broccoli becomes very important and you can spend some time on it. But if the purpose of the scene is to discuss grandma’s advance medical directive, then the broccoli is incidental and warrants no further attention.
Descriptions should be authentic to the viewpoint character. For example, a fashion-conscious woman might describe another woman’s bag as a Louis Vuitton and her shoes as Christian Louboutin. But most of us would just think bag and shoes, maybe noting their color.
The kinds of details your viewpoint characters notice say a lot about them. So choose a few relevant details wisely, rather than pouring into the scene every single thing you can conceive of.
There is a special pitfall here when we’re describing something we know well from real life. If we base the house in our story on grandma’s house, there’s a temptation to dig out the old photos and describe the place down to the smallest tchotchke. If you find this is what you have done in your manuscript, edit that description down to the essential details that are relevant to the character and the story.
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