Description is the seasoning that flavours a story.
It’s the smattering of details that prevents your novel feeling bland. In the same way that just the right amount of carefully selected herbs and spices can bring a dish to life, the right amount of carefully selected descriptive detail can bring your novel to life.
Good description has the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions, resulting, in the best of cases, in a kind of narrative trance in which the reader’s consciousness is buoyed up and swept along in the current of the story.
The words on the page is the only intermediary between what’s in your mind and what’s in your reader’s mind. As the author, you may have a clear image of the places, characters and details in your novel, but if your descriptions aren’t accurate, what the reader envisions could be quite different. And if you don’t write enough descriptive detail to begin with, the reader won’t be able to connect with your story at all – it will be too frustratingly hazy.
But include too much description in your novel and it can make your story drag. Description slows down the writing because you must pause to describe something. Because of this, you shouldn’t try to describe everything in as much detail as possible. Instead, focus on a few interesting, meaningful details.
Good, effective description draws the reader into the story by allowing them to experience it through sensory detail. It also moves the story along and adds to characterisation.
Description is not meant to be filler, or a chance for the writer to demonstrate their extensive vocabulary. Good description has purpose.
Whatever you do, don’t think of description as an isolated part of your writing. That is, don’t think ‘hmm, I need some description here’ and then dump down a paragraph of description before moving on with the action.
Going back to the seasoning metaphor, description should be sprinkled throughout your prose. Just as you wouldn’t want to eat a spoonful of ground cumin, you wouldn’t want to read a page of static description. Sprinkle that cumin into your curry sauce, though, and it adds depth to the dish. Sprinkle description through your prose, and it acts in the same way.
To prevent your story from stalling, use descriptions that serve more than one purpose. Don’t do the literary equivalent of saying to the reader ‘hang on a minute and come and look at this’ – at least not too often. Instead, describe specifics of an object that becomes significant later in the story, or describe a house in a way that reflects the character who lives there, or describe an action in detail when you want to slow the pace.
Nothing should be described in detail unless it’s important – whether to the plot or the tone of your novel.
Take this description from Dune by Frank Herbert as an example. The description effectively portrays the gravity of this character:
Through the door came two Sardukar herding a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain.
And here, Ray Bradbury in The Halloween Tree sets an ominous scene, creating suspense:
[T]he darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite series of novels. It’s incredibly rich in vivid, original description that revels in making the reader slow down and deeply experience the fantasy world around them:
This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
(Don’t you just love that metaphor of the tower being an echoing throat?)
How much and what kind of description you include in your novel will depend on the kind of writer you are and the kind of story you’re writing. Even so, you need to consider how descriptive your writing should be, and where the most detail should be included, in order to help readers accurately envision your story.