One of the most difficult aspects of description is knowing how much to put in. Too little description and the reader is bewildered and unattached to write my essay. Too much and the story slows down and the reader becomes bored. The best way to discover the thin line between under and over-description is to be very attentive when you read the type of book you want to write. The readers of literary fiction will have different expectations and inclinations than the readers of action books.
So while reading makes a mental note of how much description of character and setting occurs. Ask yourself what each detail adds to the story, or in some cases, takes away. Remember, just because the book has been published doesn’t mean it has gotten it all right. There are many published books with poor description, too much description, or not enough.
There are some types of descriptions that you can almost always eliminate. Beginning writers often list their character’s clothing like an announcer at a runway fashion show; Jennie is wearing a tapered spring cardigan, a baby blue pleated blouse, and… Unless the piece of clothing defines your character in some way (a woman who wears sunglasses all the time, even inside), you don’t need to describe it. Readers are perfectly capable of dressing your characters in appropriate clothing.
Another type of description to watch out for is the physical description that replaces characterization. For example, the only reason that you would need to talk about Sam’s “intelligent blue eyes” is that you have not shown the reader that Sam is intelligent. Cut the intelligent blue eyes and give us a dialogue between Sam and another character that shows us his intelligence in action.
When you are deciding which details to include you want to focus on concrete details that really make the setting or person come alive. One good way to discover these details is to think about a real place and write an essay in your imagination. For example, if I imagine my favorite coffee shop, I immediately think about the Indie music that is always playing, the dogs that run around inside, the sugar-sweet smile of the guy who works behind the counter, the smell of steam and espresso, and the long row of dingy couches.
It is important that the majority of your description of setting and character is based on physical details and not abstract ideas. Let’s look at a sentence from Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The main character describes a room saying, “Her house is expensively and confusedly furnished; each room seems to have one more chair than necessary.” The first part of the sentence is abstract and the second part is concrete. The majority of your description should be concrete.
Whenever you enter a building, store, or restaurant for the first time, take note of the first five things you notice. Most likely, these will be specific and concrete objects, smells, and sounds. These are the telling details you would want to include.