Our brains are a LOT more interested in filtering out unimportant input than on focusing our attention.
We work this way because the amount of data in the actual sensory world is incomprehensibly vast — even the 360 degrees around you right this second — and processing all of that data from all 5 senses (not to mention the internal dialog often triggered by such processing) would be utterly overwhelming.
And so, before we’ve even noticed a thing consciously, our brains have already singled it out as being potentially important and directed our attention at it, filtering out 99% of the rest of the world.
Use All Five Senses, Luke
It’s common for writers to think they must paint a detailed multi-sensory portrait of every room, every location, and every character they introduce. This mimics (mimesis) the ontology of the actual sensory world, as the reasoning goes, and our English teachers always said “use all five senses.” We wouldn’t want to disappoint Ms Engle.
But Ms Engle wasn’t teaching us how to write literature. Her job was just to make sure we were capable of expressing ourselves on paper, and the exercises she gave us were designed by a means testing committee in some industrial-scale educational corporation. It’s true that the practice of over-description is just like the actual sensory world — in which the entire blooming cacophony of existence is firehosed into all your headholes at once — but who the hell wants that?
No, On Second Thought, Please Don’t
In a work of fiction, the author (through the narrator or POV character) needs to play both roles — the perceiving and the filtering — because there’s no way the reader could be expected to make that judgment themself. Sure, there are exceptions (murder mysteries come to mind), but in most genres, unless you’re James Joyce, your readers don’t really want the entire blooming cacophony of existence. You must act as both the Perceiver AND the Filterer. Moreover, you must do this for both the POV character AND the reader simultaneously. That’s because, in some strange and magical way, your words exist in the gap between the voice and the head: your voice, their head.
What’s important is to notice what’s important.
This is perhaps most easily done in limited third person, because you just have to pay attention to the things your character would. In other stances, you’ll need to take a more deliberate hand in “painting” what you feel the reader needs to know, in order to elicit the experience or mood you’re conveying.
Sorry, Ms Engle, but you know it’s true.
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Afterword: That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Edit
One final note: Overwriting may be fine, if that’s just the way you do first drafts. If you have a tendency toward over-description, you can always come back later and do a kind of “perspective edit,” or hire a professional editor to help you rein it all in. Yes, I am probably available.
Whatever it takes.