While being a master of description is a marvelous thing, people can get caught so up in synonyms that they forget that the main purpose of writing is to communicate. It doesn't matter how many different ways a writer can describe a barn; if readers doesn't realize that the narrative is talking about the same barn each time, they'll get confused.
To straddle the line between flat, boring description and sensory overload, there's a technique writers can use. I hear they use it in journalism a lot, and since I don't know what the official name is, I'm going to call it tagging.
You pick a word or a short phrase which encapsulates what's being described, and then you use that as shorthand for the entire thing. It works best if the tag is part of the initial description. If possible, don't use that particular word or combination of words anywhere else. That may cause confusion.
Ethan knew almost no one at the party, but even he was enthralled by the loud drunk who always seemed to be center stage. While lesser mortals might have limited themselves to streaking or possibly pantsing the guy whose muscles were bursting out of his shirt, this man clearly excelled. It started with him betting anyone who'd listen that he could swim a lap in the empty pool in under 5 seconds. He was drinking like a fish and therefore could obviously swim like one too.
One choice to tag the loud drunk is just the word "drunk." Anytime the narrative refers about him, it will use the word "drunk." As long as no one else is described as "the drunk," readers should pick up that the story's talking about the same person.
"Give me liberty or give me tits!" the drunk shouted from the diving board. He held his plastic cup high and almost overbalanced himself into the empty pool.
"Jump!" someone shouted, and the crowd picked up the chant.
Enthralled by the attention, the drunk threw up the shocker with his free hand, then chunked his cup into the pool. Carefully examining his hand, he came to the conclusion that there was no longer a drink there. Obviously, he needed more fuel for his awesomeness.
That decided, the drunk wobbled his way back to solid ground and started the hunt for jello shots.
As long as there's only one drunk that the narrative focuses on, "the drunk" should suffice. If there are multiple drunks, you might try short phrases ("the loud drunk," "the crazy drunk" and "the friendly drunk") or synonyms ("the drunk," "the wino" and "the jello shot commando").
For people, one of the easiest tags is a name, which is why writers spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect name. That's also why, it's important to make sure that names of characters don't sound too much alike (if you're not doing that on purpose). But tagging also working with inanimate objects or settings:
The spire, thin against the sky, nevertheless dominated the horizon. On clear days, it could be seen lurking in the distance, etched like an angry scar against the sky. That it was a spire wasn't in itself unusual. Smaller spires, as thick as a man's torso, dotted the countryside and the villagers often used them as landmarks. What made this one remarkable was its height and tenacity. For it to be seen from so far away meant it was tall, taller than a mountain as said by some. And even in the summer monsoons when the rain didn't fall so much as pour from the sky, it could be seen, illuminated by lightning, watching over everything like a malicious god. It's no wonder it grew legends of its own.
The passage is quite brief, but there are many words that can be used to tag the spire. Unlike the drunk from before, there's more than one spire in this passage, so it needs a tag that's more than just "spire." Whichever word is chosen will start to characterize the spire, begin to evoke its mood. It's tall, thin, far away, looks angry, and can always be seen.
Let's use "angry":
Sevin looked up at the distant, angry spire and stuck her tongue out at it. "I don't see why everyone thinks you're so mad. You're probably just lonely. Or itchy." With no more thought than that, she continued chasing the chickens around the yard.
Every now and then, the guards on the merchant caravan would look at the angry spire and make bets. That it was the manifestation of divine wrath wasn't in question. Instead, they bet on which god was wrathful and how long it would be before it took vengeance upon them all. At that time, the superstitious would lower their eyes and make the sign against the evil eye, hoping that the spire's gaze would be averted.
The exact word doesn't matter. You could use "tall" or "omnipresent" instead. But each would slowly start to give the spire a different mood, which would eventually affect the story's tone.
Full Descriptions and Tags
In general, the more something or someone is in a scene, the less you need to fully describe it. A tag lets you link back to what you've already written while allowing you to focus on other aspects of the scene; however, if you use a tag too much, it starts to get old and noticeable, which is the last thing it should be. Like dialogue tags, descriptive tags should be nearly invisible—there enough to keep things clear but not so present that they draw attention away from the story.
The balance between full descriptions and descriptive tags is one that, ultimately, is up to personal artistic judgment. There also isn't a strict divide. Sometimes a tag won't work but a full description takes too much away from the pace and flow of a scene. But despite the individual nature of art, there are some starting points which can help bring a piece of fiction into focus. (They're not guaranteed to make writing good, nor will they work in all situations, but it's somewhere to start if people get stuck.)
- The length of a description is like camera time. The more important something is, the longer its description should be. If something is very minor, little more than scenery, giving it a one sentence description and then tagging it for the rest of the scene (if it recurs at all) usually works.
- One tag per paragraph usually suffices. ("The angry spire" the first time to establish which spire it is, and "the spire" in subsequent appearances to avoid sounding forced/awkward.)
- The first time a reader meets a character, that character should generally have a full description. The same if the character's doing something particularly meaningful or awesome.
- The next few times a reader sees someone should generally be a little lighter on description. Readers already know what they look like. Now it's time to go into a bit more action and depth. One exception is when a character hasn't appeared in a while. Refreshing reader's memories is often a good thing.
- If you're using tags to describe something and the tags are everywhere and getting annoying, whatever the tags are describing is probably important and should be more fully described. If it's still annoying after being described, the camera angle's probably wrong. The scene should focus in other areas instead.
- Don't get caught up with trying to find a brilliant word for a tag. If the word draws attention to itself, it's usually a bad choice. Tags should be transparent.
Tagging Abstract Concepts
It's also possible to tag abstract concepts, such as a "mistake" or "good luck" or "moral dilemma." This also isn't my idea, but it's a good one, and so I figured I'd share it here. I came across it while leafing through a writing magazine, and it was the subject of an article written by one of the professors at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I remember neither the name of the article nor the name of the professor, so I'm unable to cite it properly. I hope no one minds.
The example cited in the article was The Godfather. Every time something bad is about to happen, an orange shows up. Eventually, the oranges acquire a sinister meaning because people naturally make associations.
To tag an abstract concept, choose a descriptive element to associate with it. To avoid having it seem forced, try to go for something that's connotatively neutral for the most part. For greatest utility, try a descriptive element that can occur in multiple contexts without feeling out of place.
For example, you could tag the idea of "good luck" with the image of a beam of light. Nothing particularly awe-inspiring, necessarily, nor does it have to use the exact same words every time:
Daniel Aloysius stepped into the Royal Casino. As always he admired the rush of noise, bright lights and, high above, the fake sky painted on the ceiling. The sheer magnitude of the con being perpetrated on the gathered gamblers, thick like lice on the main floor, was enough to inspire awe on its own. Add to that its obvious success and the fact that the marks eagerly participated in their own fleecing and, well, this was as close to perfection on earth as it was going to get.
A slot machine, subtly framed in a beam of light, caught his eye. Next to a fountain and highly visible, it was probably a loose machine, a way for the casino to convince people the other one-armed bandits paid out more than they really did. Even though he was on a job, he figured there was no harm in trying his luck. Waving off the scantily clad waitress who offered him a drink, he slid a dollar coin into the slot and pulled the lever. The digital wheels spun madly, finally settling on a fruit combination that netted him five bucks. Not bad.
Beam of light plus slot machine equals win. Next, something a bit more subtle, a square of light on the floor.
Things had gone south. Not so far south that they were shooting at him, yet, but he wasn't planning on letting the them catch up either.
Why does it always have to be an abandoned building? he thought. At least it wasn't a warehouse. That was for people who watched too much HBO. Plus, in warehouses there were less places to hide.
The sound of footsteps behind him spurred him on into a dead end.
The utilitarian hallway ended in a blank wall. The concrete didn't even hold the outline of a wall. The harsh fluorescent lights set into a ceiling alcove cast a square of light on the floor below. Dust motes danced mockingly in the air, twinkling and merry.
At least I'll have a spotlight for my grand finale, Daniel thought. It wasn't that going down with both hands flipping the bird wasn't an appealing idea. He didn't want to go down at all. The rapidly approaching footsteps didn't help his mood.
It was only when the shadows of his pursuers could be seen on the far wall that he recognized the small grate for what it was: a possible escape. He wouldn't have thought he could fit through it, and in normal circumstances he wouldn't have been able to, but in years past some lazy contractor had covered up an embarrassingly large crawlspace with a small grate and thin layer of drywall, thinking no one would ever notice.
Keep this up long enough and many readers will unconsciously start associating beams of light with good luck, adding another layer to the narrative and creating more expectations to play with.