When writing one must ask themselves what is the most important part of my story? Is it what the surroundings look like? Is it the characters who move the story through their actions and dialogue? The answer is obvious. Characters and their dialogue make the story, whether the chair in the room in a leather Queen Ann or a rented folding chair.
However, the characters are somewhere and as a writer you want to give some indication to the reader where they are and what it looks like.
Spending too much time on the details of Aunt Millie’s cat curiosities will likely put the reader to sleep. Unless that’s where Aunt Millie has the poison hidden. The point is if you should want a scene to look a particular way and go to great lengths to describe it, if a thousand different people read it they come away with a thousand different mental pictures.
As mentioned before Michner could go on for pages describing the landscape and geographical makeup of an area. Bare in mind, he was writing epics and to him if was important to describe something before a man’s foot tread across the landscape or a word spoken.
Classics written 150 years ago are replete with description. If one lived in a cabin on the prairie they might have little concept of what a colonial kitchen looked like, thus the writer felt an obligation to provide details. A farmer in Iowa may have a hard time picturing a ship in rough seas; the writer needed to somehow put that farmer there.
Today, there is so much visualization available from pictures, movies, and the internet that a reader already might have in mind what a colonial kitchen or roaring sea looks like. As a writer you should only be concerned with what possibly makes it unique or a particular aspect that will add to the story.
Clever writers hide the details and gradually bring them to light.
John entered the kitchen. “This reminds me of my grandmother’s,” he thought back to a simple time when penny loafers and poodle skirts were the rage. He sat on a red plastic stuffed chair withof a metal frame chair.
Mr. Collins entered the room. John struggled for something to say. “I haven’t seen a salt and pepper shaker like these since the old Washington Restaurant.”
There is enough there that the reader can imagine what the kitchen looks like.
Think of the scene as an empty house you are trying to sell; show it and let the buyer decide how to decorate.
How do you describe a scene? Giving just enough detail to put the reader in a real place and allow room for the imagination too hang the pictures on the wall.