Time and time again I’ve heard: a story's magic is found in the details, but a lot of it is not. In fact, when I read, most of that magic is found in the gaps, the holes that my imagination fill. Believe it or not, but those holes can make your story more vivid to your reader. But as a writer, how do you know when you've crossed that line from just right to too much detail? There is no right answer, but I’m sure we can all agree that our imagination plays a crucial role in our reading experiences and therefore we must exercise a degree of restraint when writing ourselves.
I love detail, especially the minute details that break that suspension of disbelief; that make a scene so close to a living memory in your mind that you can almost smell what the character is smelling, feel what they’re feeling. But, again, there is something to be said about the things left unsaid.
I'll use the horror genre as an example. In horror stories what is more terrifying? A monster described in great detail or a terror lurking in the shadows, the description vague and left up to the readers? Our imagination will always come up with something ten times scarier than any detailed horror the author can produce themselves and there is a simple reason for that. We imagine what would terrify us the most in the given situation. Giant man-eating ants, spiders, etc., I don't find all that scary, but a psychopathic killer with no face, terrifies me.
In the movie The Strangers, about a couple that becomes the target of a sadistic murder-game, the faces of the intruders are never shown, not once through the entirety of the film. It was my first experience with this kind of horror and it made the experience terror-iffic. It used to be that the antagonist had to have some sort of deformity like an ugly scar across their face or have that dead-in-the-eyes look to be considered a truly terrifying villian.
But hasn't the unknown always been scarier?
So how do you write in this way? How do you know which details to write and which one's to leave up to the readers imagination? The short answer (and most unpopular one): By writing. You will learn this through experience and through your beta readers (a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting - thanks Wikipedia.)
I do, however, have some homework for you to help you along!
Take this sentence from Stephen Kings Doctor Sleep:
"She looked more closely and saw bits of flesh and decayed skin. There was more on the bathmat, in the shape of footprints. She thought them too small--too dainty--to be a man's.
"Oh God," she whispered.
She ended up using the sink after all."
Play around with it. He leaves out the description of the lady vomiting into the sink, but see what else you can do with this. Add in the description of her puking and maybe take out something else. After that, I want you to write a short horror story involving a monster, see if you can describe this monster in a way that leaves some of it up to the imagination of the reader. Have fun and happy writing!