Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story. You don’t need to describe every element of a story to a minute level of detail, but you should consider what will make your descriptions better, and what can send you off course.
What would the characters notice?
Describing a place in detail can be very good, but only if the descriptions would matter to the reader or to the character. The view outside the window of a car doesn’t matter if the main character spends the trip reading a book, unless you are trying to show what the character is missing. If a carpenter and painter are both looking at a brand new house, they are going to notice different things, and both will probably have a different view than a policeman or a teenage runaway. A happy and comfortable person may experience a place differently than a depressed or angry person.
What senses make sense?
Most writers tend to focus on visual details, which can be very important, but the way something smells, sounds, tastes or feels can also improve on the experience. Food is an item that lends itself to all five senses. Try to give details that involve more than one sense. Crowded places can often be described more effectively using sound and touch. Smell can be a very useful way of demonstrating a radical change in environment, especially for the worse. Danger and despair almost always have a strong odor.
What does the story require?
If you are writing a story about the lives of two wealthy people, you are going to want to portray that wealth through your descriptions of your environment. If you are writing a story about a poverty-stricken area, you’ll want your descriptions to capture the desperation of the situation. You should use description to reflect the moods and attitudes of your story as well as the people in it.
What are the spatial relationships?
It doesn’t always matter where people are things are in relation to each other, but there are times when that minor detail can mean quite a bit. Are two people sitting next to each other or across from each other? If they are next to each other, are they touching or creating space? Are they comfortable next to each other or uncomfortable next to each other? If they are sitting across from each other, does their difference in perspective give them a radically different view? One person may be staring at a wall while the other one stares out a window.
Are items arranged with a specific order or are items placed haphazardly? These things don’t always matter, but you should be ready to describe them if they do. If the characters are of different heights (Such as a father and a young daughter) does the difference in their perspective change what they see significantly?
What is the reality?
When you write a description, each character may have a different perspective on where they are, but there is a certain reality to the place as well. There are things that will exist, and may matter, whether the character observes them or not. It is important to reflect the character’s views, but it may also be important to show how skewed that character’s perspective may be.
For the reader to know that a person is surrounded by beauty, but doesn’t see it, it must be clear that the place is objectively beautiful. Also, depending on your story, you may be dealing with real-world settings that your audience may be familiar with. Make sure that your descriptions match what is really there, or if they don’t, be able to show why they don’t. For example, the Eiffel Tower is, for the most part, brown and gray. If you describe it as green, you had better have a reason to do so.