Back in Victorian times (Ah yes, I remember it well!) books were scarce and fairly expensive. Readers expected to devour every one of the words slowly, extracting pleasure from every tiny detail of the heroine’s dress or the dark and stormy night. They took time to savor the details of the azure blue sky and the dewy green grass.
The twenty-first century sees us doing exactly the opposite. Printed material – anything from books to newspapers and flyers – is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Free, if you use a library.
We have so much we are expected to read that we value skills like skim reading or the ability to mentally scan a page and pick up enough of its contents.
If, in our pleasure reading, we come across long paragraphs dense with description we tend to let our eyes drop down to where the text looks more interesting, a few lines of dialog perhaps. As readers we are no longer looking to spend our precious time wallowing in description.
As writers we might take note of that and not spend our time describing the scene and the characters in detail that readers will ignore. Oh! I take that back! If you go the traditional route it won’t be ignored by the reader because you won’t get a publisher to publish it.
So how do you get the flavor of the scene or the character across to the reader?
Use selective detail.
If you are describing a cocktail party where everyone is wearing a chic, stylish black dress you don’t need to go into detail about that. The reader gets it. What matters is the detail about one person’s dress. How is Juanita’s dress different? Forget the stylishness, everyone else has a chic dress. Is hers a shade too large because it is borrowed from her best friend? Is there a reason for it being shorter than everyone else’s? Is she holding her drink awkwardly to conceal a small tear under the arm?
If you’re describing a scene pick out of one or two details that make the one aspect unique. In a well-kept suburban street is there one house where the front lawn is littered with toys – a small pink tricycle, a plastic baseball bat? In a street well supplied with gas and electricity for heating, does one house have a woodpile?
The detail doesn’t just sit there being a detail, it does double duty by enriching the character or the scene.
Wherever you go, look for the selective detail in the place and people you see. If you were to describe that man, that corner, that desk or that dog what would make it unique and a stand-out in the mind of a reader?