The famous author Stephen King provides us with the perfect analogy for writing. In his book On Writing, he describes writing as:
Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.
So what is King saying?
The best way to think about writing is a process of transferring an image from your mind to the mind of the reader. As an author, you conjure a mental picture of a scene; a location, populated by characters who say and do things. You can see the characters, the location and the action. It is crystal clear.
Your job is then to take this image and put it in the mind of the reader.
The problem you face is in taking the crystal clear image from your mind and transferring it to the reader’s mind.
This is where many inexperienced authors go awry. The instinctive approach is to describe the picture from your mind’s eye in as much detail as possible. The theory being that the words on the page will conjure the same image in the mind of the reader.
And why not? This makes sense; the more detailed your description, the better the image you produce … right?
Actually, this is a bit of a rookie mistake.
The result is that, if your main character has blue eyes, the inexperienced author will make them “piercing blue” or an “unusual shade of bright blue” or a “shade of blue that would bring the angels from the heavens”.
The problem is that, although the words of the English language are pretty good at describing stuff, they are nowhere near as detailed as the mind of the reader. The reader’s mind is full of detailed images, which go far beyond any written description.
As soon as you, the author, try to pin down the description of an object, person or location, you are moving in the wrong direction.
The key here is the opposite of what you think.
Less is more.
What experienced authors know is that their job is not to describe an object/person/location in detail but, instead, to give the reader just ENOUGH description to get the reader’s mind engaged and working, just enough description to allow the reader to recall a stored image within his or her mind.
As an author, you are not trying to transfer the exact image in your mind but, instead, get the reader’s mind to build its own picture.
Let’s go back to those blue eyes.
What’s wrong with just saying they are blue?
What happens when you say blue is that you leave a gap. The reader’s mind needs more than blue. The result is that the reader’s mind jumps to fill in the gap. It uses its library of images, all intensely detailed, to conjure a suitable set of blue eyes. This set of blue eyes will go far beyond anything you could have described.
Take this example:
The old man knocked on the door.
I am betting you have already formed a picture in your mind’s eye. It is probably a vivid picture of an old man knocking on a door.
Now try this:
The old man knocked on the blue door.
Another layer of detail forces you to reassess and reform your picture. Now the door is blue. The shade of blue and the old man will be different for each reader, but who cares?
The old man knocked on the battered blue door.
Again another picture. The door has changed. The words have forced your mind to add in detail that was not there with the previous sentence.
What about this:
The old man knocked on the battered blue door. The ancient paint was peeling in large strips, the bare rotten wood clearly visible beneath.
Once again you are forced to reimagine your perception of the old man and the door. Your mind will have focused in further, adding more layers.
But which is best?
It all depends on the scene.
If your scene calls for any old man to be knocking on any old door, with neither the man nor the door having any real relevance to the plot, then the first example is the best. It allows the reader to paint a picture without any limitations. You give the reader just enough to paint the picture but not so much that you are manipulating the image.
However, let’s say that the door being old is important. In fact, the age of the door is a key plot point. Perhaps this is a portal to another dimension. The door shows its true age, not the age of the building. In this situation, you would want to add in more detail. You might find that battered is enough, though perhaps the peeling paint is inadequate.
The important concept here is that the plot and context will dictate the amount of description that is required.
In short, enough is enough.