We all hear this on every corner, "Be specific in your writing. Describe every detail." And at the same time we also hear this, "Don't over-describe. Give the reader room to breathe, to imagine." When you're just starting out as a writer, when you begin working on your first short story or novella or novel, this can be confusing. What does it mean, to describe every detail and yet not to over-describe? How exactly is this possible?
Describe selected details, only those details that are absolutely necessary to move the story forward. Cut out everything else.
Every time I read stories sent to me by beginning writers, I see the same mistake repeated over and over again. I used to do this too.
EVERY LITTLE THING IS DESCRIBED. EVERY BLOODY THING.
Here is a little passage I just wrote, just as an example.
"It was January second, 1998, and the sky was laden with heavy clouds the color of steel and sorrow. There were no cars in the street at this hour, 5 a.m., too early for morning commute. The rain pattered softly on wet asphalt, pooling into large puddles that reflected the steely sky and the underside of a bright red umbrella held in a leather-gloved hand. The face of the man under the umbrella was grim. Blue piercing eyes, arched inquisitive eyebrows, thin mustache over bloodless lips. Heavy jaw, perhaps too heavy for his narrow forehead. Small ears pressed to the sides of his elongated skull. He looked expectant, waiting for someone, and every few minutes he'd take out a golden watch on a chain from his camel coat pocket and flip open the lid and glance inside, shake his head slightly, then put it back with a frown and look over one end of the street, then over another, as if whoever it was he was waiting for could come from both directions at once."
This I just wrote as an example. See how everything is meticulously described? I could add even more stuff here, but the problem with all this description is, it bogs down the story. It makes it heavy, it doesn't move it forward. And yet some of these details might be important. For example, why is he looking at the watch? To check the time? Or for some other reason? Whatever the story is, it needs to be trimmed down to essentials, like this.
"It was a rainy January morning. On an empty street stood a man under an umbrella. Every few minutes he'd take out a golden watch from his pocket, flip open the lid and study the engraving. "L & R," which stood for Tom Lenhart & Betty Rhein, both of whom had been murdered at 10:52 p.m. the night before."
Bam! Suddenly the watch is very important. We can supply the rest of the detail, but the watch is now part of the story. Everything else is gone because it's not important.
Let me show you a Stephen King example. I just finished reading his novella THE BODY, since it's somewhat reminiscent of CORNERS (4 kids on a journey), and one passage particularly struck me. The economy of words. The emphasis on specific details. Nothing else needs to be here. We supply the rest in our heads.
"He sees it again, though: the skidding, skating Ford Mustang, the knobs of his brother's spine picked out in a series of dimpled shadows against the white of his Hanes tee-shirt; he had been hunkered down, pulling one of the Chevy's back tires. There had been time to see rubber flaying off the tires of the runaway Mustang, to see its hanging muffler scraping up sparks from the infield. It had struck Johnny even as Johnny tried to get to his feet."
Note how he doesn't describe Johnny at all, not his jeans (you imagined them, didn't you?) or work boots (you also imagined them, right?) or his fingers dirtied by work, his sweaty face. None of it. But see how the cars are specific, and the brand of the t-shirt, the color, the sparks from the muffler. There isn't even a description of noise or smell. We get it all. Only the important details are left in.
Here is another example, from the same book. Chilling and to the point.
"Teddy's dad took Teddy over to the big woodstove at the back of the kitchen and shoved the side of Teddy's head down against one of the cast-iron burner plates. He held it down there for about ten seconds. Then he yanked Teddy up by the hair of the head and did the other side."
Note how there is no description of screaming, or any noise at all. Or smell. Or clothes. Or anything else. Only the burners are described, and the amount of time. Exactly ten seconds. The rest we imagine. Brrr...
See? This is what you have to do in later drafts (that's why I cut 50% of IRKADURA, trimming it from 120K words down to 60K). Don't worry about your first draft. Be as wordy as you want to be. Describe everything, so you know where you're going with the story. But once it's done, once you start your second draft, and third, and so on, trim the fat. Get rid of stuff that is not needed and is not relevant to the story. Keep only what matters and what moves the action forward. And be very specific. Cite specific numbers, dates, materials, smells, songs, whatever. It will ground the reader in reality, and at the same time give enough space to imagine the rest.