Ah… this is always going to be a tricky thing to give a definitive answer on.
Usually, I stick with mentioning what is important and what the character/narrator is likely to, or needs to notice.
That probably sounds very confusing and not like a good answer at all. Mainly because it isn’t - what I do might be totally different to what somebody else does…
Keep it Simple
If you have a narrator who embellishes things or has a very poetic way of speaking, then sugary descriptions might be the right thing to do from scene to scene. Generally though, I think it’s less overwhelming for the reader if the description is simple and concise, especially if you have a lot to say and not very many words to say it in.
Bear this in mind if you’re, for example:
- Throwing a present-day character into a past/future/alternate world where the differences will be massive;
- Introducing the reader to a whole new universe including new customs, races, geography, etc;
- Taking your main character into another world that exists alongside the current one (for example, how there was a ‘Wizarding world’ and ‘Muggle world’ in Harry Potter).
It’s way too easy to think, ‘I have to describe everything now!’ but chances are, your reader can live without witnessing creative greetings between your self-created races for a few more pages. So focus on the here and now and describe as and when it is necessary to do so.
Walk in their Shoes
If you have a tendency to rush from one end of the scene to the other, step back for a moment and put yourself in your character’s shoes. You’ve created the setting, so you’ll know exactly what kind of things they’re likely to walk past as they move from one point of action to another.
Make a list of all the things they might see and then weave it into your writing, like so:
'I can't believe we just -'
She pushed her hands into her hair and cast a look of disbelief to the bough-protected sky. Her fingers were still grey with dirt, her face a patchwork of grass stains and mud scratches. Somewhere along the chase, she had lost a shoe, her heel ground deep into the edge of a slick bog.
'Watch your step.'
With a gentle skip, she planted herself onto safer ground, a stone that set the beginning of a paved pathway into the forest. She glanced my way.
'Looks safe enough.'
'I'm not sure.'
I turned back towards the ascending rooftops of our village, the hill now more like a mountain from the distance we had covered.
'Maybe we should go back.'
'And get into trouble all over again? No thanks.'
She dusted off her dress and ducked under the tendrils of an old willow, examining the endless rows of trees, full of a wonder that I couldn’t feel beneath all of my fears. Obscured by the wilderness, I was forced to follow her, or risk being caught at the mouth of woodland, the stale loaf still tucked beneath my arm.
'Hey, wait up…!'
Her laugh echoed back in the dusky gloom, almost drowned out by loud birdsong. Every breath I took was thick with pollen, until we reached a sun-drenched clearing…
That’s not the best writing in the world, but I hope it at least serves the purpose of showing how you can sew in details of the setting alongside the action.
Strike a Balance
Sometimes, you might need to rely on blocks of description. Not everywhere is a talking zone, but try to break up your detail on the setting with inputs of thought or dialogue. That way, it doesn’t get too description-heavy, and nor does the scene move too quickly.
I hope this helps…