July 28, 2007
A New Place or Person
Remember the last time you walked into a room you had never been in before. Perhaps it was a new store or restaurant, or maybe it was the first time you walked into your neighbor's house. You didn't have time to sit down and look at every object in the room or to notice every detail.
What details grabbed your attention? Why did they grab your attention? Did they remind you of something or somewhere? Did they make you feel comforted or afraid? Did anything stand out as unusual? Was it cluttered, empty, or filled with a comfortable number of objects? Was it extraordinarily bright or dark, or did it have the expected level of light? Did the room have a French country style or perhaps an Asian Zen style? Chances are, you noticed only a few objects or anything that seemed unusual.
Likewise, when introducing your audience to a new place, only point out details that your character initially notices. You can fill in the details later as they catch your character's attention.
The same goes for describing new characters. Your protagonist probably won't notice every freckle and mole on another character. Just describe the parts that stand out.
Adding the Details with Actions
Once your character has a basic sense of a location, add details by adding actions into your story. In reality, a person doesn't walk into a room and say, "Look, a can opener." If your character is starving and discovers a can of soup, though, he will probably look that can opener frantically, notice an object with double black handles in the drawer, pull it out to reveal the crank and the round blade, and feel a huge sense of relief when he realizes that he has found it. Otherwise, don't mention it.
A Familiar Place or Person
If your character has been to a place so frequently that he no longer notices the details, pay attention to objects that are important to your character. If your character is in his own home, he won't pay special attention to how bright it is every time he walks into his sunroom. He may enjoy sitting in the bright sunlight of his sunroom, though.
Also pay attention to changes in familiar places. If your character sees the park every day, only describe how the park changes. Perhaps the large, round fountain is turned off and covered with ice in the winter. Maybe your character drives by and notices a carnival in the park. What is different about the setting since the last time your character visited it?
The same goes for familiar faces. Describe features that your character didn't expect to see, like purple hair on a girl who normally has brown hair or weepy eyes on a boy who rarely cries.
I Already Know What McDonald's Looks Like
Nearly everyone in industrialized countries has scene a McDonald's restaurant. Unless the McDonald's in your story looks much different than most other McDonald's, or your character just adores the laminate counters, I don't need you to describe it for me.
Likewise, it is not necessary to describe places most people have already seen. Most playgrounds, doctor's offices, and cornfields generally looks the same. Only point out details that make your character's location unique or add to the story.
Be More Specific
A field of flowers is a beautiful image, but each reader will have a different image of that field if you aren't specific enough. What colors does your character see? Is the field blanketed or dotted with flowers?
Also think about how that field of flowers will make your character feel. Running through a field of daisies is fun, and he may look forward to doing it. Running through a field of thorny roses is painful, and he'll probably want to avoid it.
Too Many Details
Your audience wants to hear the story, not a log from an archeological study (unless, of course, your character is doing an archeological study).
If your character has a collection of one hundred pig figurines sitting on the shelf, there is no need to describe each of the one hundred pigs. Describing one or two, if absolutely necessary, will suffice.
They don't need to know exactly how many clouds are in the sky unless your character is obsessed with counting them.
The same goes for describing characters. If your character has any specific traits we should know about, then find a way to work them in, but don't spend multiple paragraphs describing every aspect of your character's physical description.
I know all those details are important to you, but excess details aren't important to your audience. If you absolutely can't stand the thought of tossing out your excessively detailed descriptions, put them in a supplemental book. Your fans my opt to read it if they absolutely must know exactly the appearance of every inch of every scene.