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If one is describing a gala ball, what level of detail of the room is considered appropriate? For example, if the ball is a lavish one, is it appropriate to include the table settings (conical red napkins, crystal wine, and water glasses, etc.) or is the designation "lavish ball" sufficient?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Focus on the viewpoint character's attention and opinions.

Describe whatever the viewpoint character pays attention to, especially if the character has an opinion about it.

Don't describe anything that the viewpoint character pays no attention to.

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Great, helpful answer. Thanks so much Dale. I learned a lot from your ideas and will incorporate them in my screenplay. – ron tornambe Apr 1 at 23:04
    
Oh… I didn't notice that you were asking about screenplays. My answer is good for novels and short stories. Screenplay descriptions are entirely foreign to me, and I suspect that my answer does not apply. – Dale Hartley Emery Apr 2 at 0:28
    
I think your answer applies as much to screenplays as it does to other art forms. In a screenplay, you do not want to burden readers with TMI. You must remember to describe only what actors can see and hear. Directors can, and are capable of filling in the blanks. Therefore, your answer is completely appropriate. Your honesty and integrity deserves a +1. – ron tornambe Apr 2 at 4:29

Dale Hartley Emery answered

"Don't describe anything that the viewpoint character pays no attention to"

With this principle Zola's books would be short stories and The Lord of The Ring, a novella. A good portion of the world fiction would be reduced to shreds.

My answer as to the level of detail would be that it depends on your skills. Some authors can write pages after pages of intricate details without boring the reader, other authors make you speed-read and jump any bit of description.

Also, it depends if the description is needed or not. Is the environment an important character, are you writing an atmospherical novel?

Just saying "lavish ball", would be enough only if it is the umpteen unimportant ball the character attends.

If the setting is important yes, I would like to know details about the napkins, glasses…mesmerize us, show us the wonder of the child seeing it for the first time, regale us with minutia, show us that it is lavish…do lavish in the details.

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Thanks, Reed. Actually, I am writing a screenplay. It is entitled Mozart, Wunderkind. By the time the scene I referred to is shown, Mozart has already performed at Versailles and Buckingham Palace. These scenes are described in great detail. Your points, however, are well taken. – ron tornambe Apr 3 at 19:17

Focus on the viewpoint character's attention and opinions.

Agreed. But some stories are told by an omnipotent narrator, so more care must be taken to stop describing things before the reader gets bored and skips ahead.

In general, I'd suggest having people read your work and be brutal about critiquing it. I like adding a note where I lose interest in the narrative and feel like jumping to the next paragraph.

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