Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.
On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?
Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.
Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.
However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.
One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.
In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.
Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.
By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.
The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.
How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?
Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.
A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.
Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.
An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.
Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.
However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.
The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.
Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?
Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?
If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.
For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.
This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.
Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.
Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.
Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.
Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.
Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.
The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.