I talked a little about descriptions in the past, but there is one thing that continually seems to elude many writers, myself included. It's a simple question of character. The point of a Point of View character is to deliver the story and the world through the eyes of an interesting character. Otherwise, we might as well stick with an objective-omniscient point of view and never bother.
For me, description isn't about describing things. As I said in the earlier post, it's about establishing place for a scene, mood and character. All true, but what is missing is the lens.
The character is the lens. An author acquaintance of mine recently noted to me that she had no idea what color her curtains were without glancing over her shoulder to check. Well, then, if she were to describe herself hard at work in that room, would it make sense to describe the color of the curtains? Not if we're firmly rooted in her point of view.
In the past, when I wrote, I had a mental movie playing. I saw every detail. I meticulously transferred those images to prose, every glance, every smile, every cough, every scratch. But that is a waste of words. The reader has their own mental moving playing, and no matter how much you describe your mental movie, it is not the reader's mental movie. They will always form their own images. So, the first job of description is to get the reader's mental reels spinning. It doesn't take much.
A movie theater is not just a movie theater though. It can be old and trashy or new and luxurious. It can be cramped or plush. So, yes, it deserves a few words to get the reader into the place.
Then what? The next job is to point out what is important or noteworthy. Let's say it's a brand-new, plush, and cool despite the heat outside. Now, there's some youths in the front row. They're in ripped jeans. Not much detail, right? But they obviously don't belong. The reader's mind is probably adding some detail despite the paucity of details. One reader might add a tattoo, another might add an earring or a hairstyle. If I need a specific effect, a particular type of youth in ripped jeans, I can add a few more details, but there is probably something more important....
I haven't mentioned a point of view character in this theater yet, but rather than focus on things like eye color, hair color, height, build and complexion--I would most likely start showing the reader something of what is happening inside that brain. How does the retired doctor who is there to illegally exchange a lot of cash for a year's supply of medication for his wife's rare condition feel about those youth? Their eye color suddenly doesn't matter as much. What matters is that they're a threat. At least, that's what our retired doc thinks. He's not noting every detail about these kids, he's thinking of a way to get them expelled. Maybe he could say he saw them playing with a camcorder, or that they were being loud and making rude comments.
What we have so far is just description and reaction. There is a deeper level. Rather than use the author's voice to tell the reader that there are a group of youth's in ripped jeans, why not let the character's voice come out. "Four or five callow lads in ripped denims loitered on the front row of the auditorium...." I didn't provide any extra detail. It's only fair. But notice how now we have a sense of what our retired doctor sees. Not just what is in his line of sight.
It is always about character, unless it's about story, which is always about character.
Beyond the five sense, the human mind does a lot of processing. Scientists differ on the number of senses we have, but it's not five. Wikipedia lists a sense of temperature, time, pain, self, mind, kinesthesia, balance and acceleration. It also mentions a sense of suffocation, chemoreceptors, a sense of vasodilation (blushing), and a host of other things that our brain is constantly busy with. So just focusing on five senses cheapens the deep Point of View experience--though, yes, if you're going to describe things, please do remember to use more than just visual clues.
Last point: concerning the amount of description to use: it varies. One character will notice much more than another. (And some people seem oblivious to their surroundings.) But grounding the reader, establishing mood, and focusing on character seem to be the keys to really good descriptions. It's not about what is there so much as how the character reacts to it and the mood it sets.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.