I recently hosted a schmooze, where the topic was description, and I came to several realizations in preparing for it. As I looked for different examples of good and bad description it struck me that the least effective ones were where just a basic description of what the character(s) could see around them. One description, in particular, helped me to see this. The description covered an old stone church that had been converted into a school refectory. There was all kinds of history associated with the building, but the description was just a simple list of things the character could see when she walked inside. The part of the description that stuck with me was when the character thought of churches she’d seen back home that were in old trailers with plastic chairs. That image was so strong and full of all sorts of meanings and connotations, it sparked my imagination. But that wasn’t where the story was taking place. And while it was helpful background information about the character, the power of the scene should have been where she currently was. Instead, that one line took me out of where the character and the story were taking place. The old church should have been oozing with possibilities for description. It was a lost opportunity. It made me realize that description needs to be more than simple surface details. That kind of description is forgotten within a page turn. It makes no impact and therefor has no staying power.
When I found examples of good description, I realized they had something in common. They were rarely a laundry list of things in the scene. They more often picked one thing and said something powerful about it. The one that comes to mind was from Lani Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The character is alone on the streets of Prague. It’s winter and she hears the church bells arguing midnight. (I wish I had thought of that phrase.) I can’t count how many times I’ve read in a book about church bells pealing. Usually it’s used to invoke a positive, even joyous moment. How delicious to use it the opposite way.
There are some rare books where setting becomes a character in itself. (Think of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.) In these books the author uses the setting to create a mood and atmosphere that enhances the story and brings it to a deeper level. I wrote a previous blog about that.
If you are using description simply to give surface details of what is around the character at any given time in the story, then you are handicapping yourself. The best description does more than that. In fact, listing the details of what’s around a character is often the least important thing. Good description sets a mood, makes an impact, is memorable, and deepens the reader’s involvement in the story.