After a just-right meal and before going to the just-right bed, Goldilocks thought it would be nice to have something to read, so off to the den she went. She found three books side by side. The first book made no sense, the second book was too heavy, and the third book was just right.
Goldilocks has hit upon the writer’s greatest issue. What’s too little and what’s too much when it comes to description? That’s never an easy answer.
Hemmingway was the master of sparse prose. He had very little description, but what he had was spot-on. Tolkien was a verbose writer, yet he has a devoted audience. Therefore, it isn’t in the quantity of text as much as in the quality of text. Papa Ernest had concrete settings; Old Troll wrote fantasy settings. Each followed a single unstated rule: The right amount of description is that which says the most with the least.
A common cry of young authors is that they must make the reader see what they, the author, sees.
That’s ridiculous, though. Look at any adaptation of fantasy novel to movie. Is that what the author saw? Consider the author of Mary Poppins, who despaired because screen Mary was nothing like book Mary. It would be news to her to discover no one’s Mary was her Mary.
My sister read the opening of a novel I was working on and described the hero as “shallow.” I didn’t think he was shallow at all!
It’s the author’s job to give just enough description for the reader to build their own version of the literary world. It’s going to be different for everyone.
Do you need to tell us what pattern of the couch? Maybe, if it directly relates to the character’s state of being, but just as description? Maybe, if that’s the defining characteristic of the setting. If it’s just a detail of insignificance, don’t tell us.
Little Bear’s book wasn’t descriptive enough. Goldilocks didn’t know what was going on.
Papa Bear’s book was over-descriptive, which Goldilocks found heavy and exhausting.
Mama Bear’s book found the balance. She helped Goldilocks build a picture rather than try to specifically implant her picture of the setting and characters.
I would love to give a rule, like: If it has no significance, delete it. But that rule doesn’t account for flavor.
A few details beyond just the important gives a flavor of the setting. It sets a tone. Further, things your subconscious puts in a scene may have significance later in the scene. I know a fellow who writes a scene and films it, writes another and films that. The problem with not knowing the ending is that you can’t sprinkle foreshadowing in. I’ve found often what I thought was inconsequential ended up being useful later (and I don’t mean introducing a gun in a scene. If there’s a gun, it must be used, or get rid of it).
The only rule I can possible give is: Keep it fresh. If your old man is in the sea, you better give me a unique scent of the tide. “The sea smelled of fish and salt.” Bleh. “The sea smelled of rabbis and popcorn.” That’s a unique image.
The mark of a great writer is the ability to find the
balance. Just enough, but not too much. Or the bears might eat you.