Starting in childhood, the message accompanying the pencil, or pen, or keyboard is uniform: be vivid. Be specific. Let us picture the moment. Bring on the detail.
Yes. Yet too much detail can be as bad as—or even worse than—not enough. Excessive description, even when electric and exquisite, can weaken fiction. Because you can inadvertently introduce problems like these:
On the first page of your novel, Marcy leaves the kitchen without offering her husband the customary “Have a good day” kiss. That’s the tension of the opening. Why doesn’t she kiss him? How will he react? Can the couple (and those reading about them) anticipate sweaty make-up sex in just a page or two?
But what if you decide to add vividness by explaining that last night Hank offended Marcy by saying she looked kind of plump in that sweater. Perhaps you may to clarify that, not being a wordsmith, Hank only meant that the garment was rather risqué for the office. But do readers care that chartreuse is Marcy’s favorite color, the sweater has a boat neck, she wears it with matching earrings, or she managed to scoop it up at nearly 70% off?
Such sentences are often difficult to compose and position. That might be because the sentence doesn’t belong anywhere. If you can’t place it or fix it, maybe you don’t want it?
If readers are captivated by Marcy hesitating outside the divorce attorney’s office, it might be the time to mention that both her maternal and paternal grandparents are divorced. Is it the right time, though, for a lengthy description of how her mother and father fell in love?
One way fiction differs from life is that it’s a set of focused details rather than a random barrage of them. Reality forces us to sift through and decide what matters. In fiction, that’s the author’s job.
Don’t you want to attract a reader who assumes that whatever you include is important? A reader who pays attention, because if it isn’t relevant right now, it surely will be later? If you want readers like that, then every detail has to count.
Details sometimes result in a general description, then a specific one. Or a specific, then general one. Neither of those works.
Tip: Less description? That’s sometimes more. When in doubt, leave it out.