What happens in your head when you read fiction? I see movies. They are sort of fragmented and compressed, and share some qualities with dreams, but I definitely see pictures. I see the characters and settings as described by the author and hear the conversations represented by the written dialogue.
Each scene is a separate little film, ranging from (to mix a metaphor) a sketch to a fully-realized, detailed picture, depending on the amount of description furnished by the author. If the scenes all take place in a single building, city or some other discrete place, but without a description of the place as a whole, I have only the vaguest notion of how the various rooms, streets, squares, hills, water bodies, etc. fit together. They just float around separately. This is one of the reasons for the dreamlike feel of mind-movies. But unless an idea of the big picture is necessary in order to follow the plot, it really doesn’t matter.
If the big picture is necessary, there is often a map supplied to help the reader. Maps are great, but they have a peculiar compressing effect. I see the events happening right on the map itself, tiny but vivid, and have to zoom in.
Fictional people can be both shadowy and vivid at the same time — not so much sets of multiple physical characteristics as conglomerations of mannerisms superimposed on physical types. The writer doesn’t need to give detailed descriptions of a character, as though for a police file; a picture emerges as I see the person moving around and hear them speaking.
An interesting thing is that reading any piece of written narrative unreels a mind-movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, well or badly-written, exciting or boring.
Some pieces of writing leave colourful, vivid impressions in my mind. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one; Richard Adams’s Maia is another, along with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books. All of these involve a good deal of description, because they are set in fictional worlds created by their authors. That got me thinking about description in writing.
Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Landor’s Cottage” is almost pure description. The narrator, wandering the countryside, becomes lost and comes upon a cottage in a valley. That’s pretty much all that happens; 95% of the piece is a detailed description of the house and its setting. Recently I tried reading it again, having remembered it from my first reading at least 40 years ago. I remembered the mental picture I saw when I read the piece, even to details such as the grassy road that leads to the place, with carefully arranged stones at the sides, and the great tulip tree that is a dominant feature of the site. Clearly, all this description made a lasting impression on me. But was “Landor’s Cottage” a riveting read the second time? No. About half way through, I got bored and started skimming.
So now I have a theory — whatever part of the brain makes those mind-movies can’t cope with too much of any one element. I have said in an earlier post that I find long action sequences boring. Most writers believe that too much description and long stretches of dialogue unrelieved by action (the infamous “talking heads”) are to be avoided. Yes, yes and yes.
It’s best to mix up the elements. A bit of action, a bit of dialogue (possibly interlayered with the action), brief, vivid bits of description, and a very small amount of narrator’s commentary (or none; the author should know whether it’s needed). That will keep the movie-maker in the brain happy, and the reader reading.