In today’s world of immediate gratification reader’s no longer have the patience for pages upon pages of description. An optimized way to describe settings, people, and situations with impact is presented here. The basic idea is that descriptive detail should be allocated based on the emotional importance it has from a character’s POV. An emotional salience (importance) map is a better way to represent our perceived world. The map can be thought of as a modern art representation of the scene at hand. That is, if a fresh bouquet of red roses is sitting on a table, the bouquet in the map might be the equivalent of 5 feet high and everything else in the room dwarfed. How does this apply to description? The proportion of the salient features, i.e. the roses, relates to the amount of detail you expend on the item in the scene’s description. The key is that this depends on each character’s unique POV and their emotional state.
Take the generic description of a room - two large windows, a grandfather clock, a side table, a sofa and some paintings on the walls. In the room is a young woman pacing, looking out the windows, frowning at her reflection, and checking the grandfather clock every thirty seconds. Using her ‘importance’ POV and the amount of needed descriptive detail is greatly skewed towards the windows and the clock and the image of time and emotions including anticipation, love, anxiety, fear... The sofa, side table and paintings have shrunk or disappeared from her POV and likewise might even be omitted from the description of the room. Now reggae music and incense could heighten the mood. Actual description must have specific details. Here I want to focus on the framework of emotion based proportions of those details. Note; not all description must be emotion driven, some might serve the plot such as the woman making a mental note that Uncle Maynard’s harpoon gun needs dusting.
Ten minutes later a man is shown into the same room by the woman and she dashes off to fetch some drinks. The man immediately closes the blinds thus eliminating the windows from his importance map, and then takes a good look at one of the paintings to use as a conversation piece, but what dominates his importance map is the sofa. With emotions of anticipation, lust, perhaps love he checks it for comfort, size, arranges the pillows.
Thus, we have the very same ‘linear’ room viewed by two people and the ‘non-linear’ POV of each is completely different. In a very real sense they are in different worlds. It is the importance map for each character’s POV that a writer’s descriptive effort (details, imagery, metaphors etc.) must focus. Remember, our own personal salience maps are instantiations of the world and are non-linear. The non-linearity comes from our emotion system, which is vital to our survival and well being. Quite often in life and fiction conflict arises from improperly derived salience.
Now the woman returns to the room and her importance map focuses on the closed blinds and the man comfortably lying back on the couch. Although you write from a single point of view you must imagine each character’s POV. Here the man is focusing on the couch and the drinks. With two different ‘importance’ POVs you have conflict. Will the woman open the blinds furthering the conflict or kick off her shoes? That is up to you and your own salience map.