As readers, we want our description to be riveting. We want it to be absorptive. We want to feel like we are there—like we can see everything exactly as the author imagines it. But, of course, as writers, we know that we by necessity end up focusing on some things a lot, others a little, and the rest not at all. Otherwise, we’d be writing for days, and never get anything done. And, moreover, we know that choosing the wrong thing, too many things, or just focusing waaay too tight on even the right thing, can have disastrous (if entertaining) effects for one’s story. This makes writing description an exercise in picking just the right foci, and learning to turn just enough attention on them to let them shine.
It’s easiest to start thinking about the effects of different levels of focus—and different focal points--by stripping a scene of its description entirely, leaving it just with the bare bones of its dialogue. A scene so stripped immediately becomes something like a blurry picture. The blurriness in the picture represents everything the reader is providing with their imagination—things you’ve mentioned before, things absorbed from the cover art, and things they just plain made up. Everything you then describe gets pulled from that blurry background into focus. And, of course, the more time we spend on that description, the tighter the focus becomes, until we’re right up in the hero’s nose digging for gold that we’re sure, at that point, will prove pivotal in the execution of the plot.
So, that's all well and good. But when it comes time to add that description back in, how do you know how to tell if you have too many foci, the wrong focus, or even just if you've zoomed in a little too close? We've all experienced how terribly easy it is to turn an earnest desire to write immersive description into a focus-fest that leaves no nostril unexplored. For this reason--and in honor of the sanctity of all nostrilkind--I’ve thrown together three of the most common mistakes made with foci, their effects, and, of course, how to best avoid them.
Too Many Foci
The old, grizzled war-orc grimaced unhappily as he took a tentative sip of the dead, unfashionable dwarf’s fly egg-and-mold-infested ale, which was in an elegant, silver mug covered in the most amazing etchings [--insert 75 words about etching here--], and disgustedly wiped his gaping mouth with his thick, knobby, sausagelike fingers of surprising girth, which also had sparse but coarse and determined hair growing out of them. The ale? Was nasty.
So, if a descriptive paragraph is a blurry picture, and describing things pulls things into focus, then why not just describe everything? That way, the reader can see what’s going on exactly as you do, in your head, right? Right? Tragically? No.