We all struggle to build realistic, compelling worlds for our readers. We want readers to experience our stories as real life, or an amazing magical simulacrum of real life, anyway. We wish to give our readers a picture of our characters and the places through which they move, and the only way to do that is by describing our characters and settings.
There is a wide range of opinion about how detailed your descriptions should be to accomplish this feat. I'm going to try staying out of that discussion today. What I'd like to ramble about for a while instead is the kind of detail we write into our stories. The worth of those details to our readers, if you will.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "trivia" as trifles, things of little consequence. The OED gives several definitions of "detail," but here's what I consider the most pertinent one: A minute or subordinate part of a building, sculpture, or painting, as distinct from the larger portions or the general conception. I'm going to expand that definition to include people, landscapes, objects or whatever is visible in a scene.
Detail versus trivia
I think that when we lard a scene over with descriptions of every visible object, and list inventorially the contents of every room or the costume of every character and try to "paint a picture," we are usually just giving a lot of trivia to the reader. Which is to say, if you present your reader with a list of fifty household goods or another list of twenty articles of clothing, can you really expect her to remember all of that stuff? Maybe, if the descriptions you give your readers are telling. To resort to the OED again, "telling" is effective, forcible, striking. Your descriptive details must mean something in the context of the story to be memorable, to be useful to the reader.
How do you know the difference? I think that if you can cut a detail and you lose no information about character, theme or story, you've just cut meaningless trivia. On the other hand, if your description points to something beyond itself, it has meaning to the reader.
Imagine a scene between two men. One of them is immaculately dressed in an expensive tailored suit, and the other is wearing older, off-the-rack clothes that are getting a bit tired and threadbare. You can describe the well-dressed fellow from his $100 haircut down to his $400 shoes, and then describe the other fellow in a similar fashion, from his grown-out Supercuts down to his scuffed Payless oxfords. That's a lot of description, and taking that kind of time in your narrative will bring your story to a full stop.
What you can do instead is to show one or two telling details of their clothes. Man One offers to shake hands with Man Two. Man Two notices the fine cut of Man One's suit, then looks down and sees that he's missing a button from the cuff of his own suit coat and pulls his hand away, putting it behind his back in embarrassment. Or something like. The reader has seen Man One's confidence and better dress, as well as Man Two's relative place in society and how he feels about it. Four birds with one stone, as it were.
Another example would be the dinner party in "Little Women." We get just enough about the dresses the girls are wearing to know that, while they are the March's finest dresses, they are also not so fine as the girls could wish. And the bit about Jo's gloves is brilliantly done and reinforces both Jo's and Meg's characters.
One other real problem with long, detailed descriptions is that, once you've dumped all the details on your reader, you can't usually invoke those details later on and impart more meaning to them farther along in your story. The details haven't stood out (weren't telling) when first mentioned, so the opportunity to have them be effective and possibly symbolic has been lost. Be sparing with your descriptions and parcel them out as required, but no more.
So you might take a few minutes and look around your scenes and ask yourself what matters in the way of description. Ask yourself what single detail of character or setting would deepen the meaning of the scene, and which details are merely trivia and set dressing. A few well-placed and thoughtful details are, as the saying goes, worth a thousand words.