The dog rested on the couch, curled into a tight ball, snoot hanging over the edge surrounded by a pile of sheet music and research articles. Wind howled outside the window blowing snow from here to Montana in a single gust as frigid air seeped into the room—goosebumps erupted on my arms. The carpet in the room was brown with lighter flecks—chosen to hide any dirt that may be tracked in through the navy blue front door that often loses battles with the wild wind.
Don’t think I heard you scream that as you read?
I did. I heard you and it wasn’t pretty. Why? Because the description of the scene wasn’t pretty. Accurate, yes. Interesting? Nope.
The flip side of this is action, action, action with little to no description. The author may think it’s exciting, but if the reader isn’t anchored in some sort of setting or given context, your “exciting” scene may only befuddle. Don’t befuddle your reader.
So how do you decide what matters and what doesn’t?
What details are necessary to move the plot/character development? Is there a person/object that comes into play later? Like a candle stick the main character uses to brain the bad guy? Can’t have her use it if we don’t first see it.
What mood are you creating? Description functions to set a tone or mood of what’s going on in the scene.
Are there features of the setting that impact what’s going on? Like, is the ice on the pond they are walking across thin and creaky? Will they fall through halfway into the scene? Can the hero not get to the heroine because there is a mountain in the way and no tunnel or road around? Is the sleeping dog going to suddenly pop up, hackles raised to warn of impending doom?
Ah, and then there is foreshadowing! You can use details in description to foreshadow (Oh man, I love this device and have a geek-freak moment when I spot it in books I read.) For example, in my book SPIN, as the situation with Mr. Plank deteriorates, Mrs. Hampden’s hair becomes more disheveled. We see her at the beginning of the story with hair in a neat bun. But strands fall and her appearance declines as the doom looms.
And then there is the dazzle-the-reader description. Who doesn’t want to move to Rivendell from Lord of the Rings? Every time I read books by Kim or Kayla, my desire to visit Alaska intensifies. Becca breathes life into flat places like… Oklahoma. Great description sparks a reaction in the reader. It makes them want to do something because of what they read.
I gave you a hideous example at the top of this article. Let me rectify that tragedy by giving you some shining examples:
John worked his way around the store. Rows of open crates lined all four sides of the tent walls from floor to ceiling, and another row of back-to-back crates ran through the center. If only he had the money for canned peaches and tins of meat. With a sigh, John passed them by for coffee, axle grease, and stationary. He took them to the makeshift table, setting them down before hoisting a large bag of beans and the bag of wheat with his name pinned on from under the sagging wood to add to his purchases. – Becca Whitham, Beside Still Waters from Admirer Romance Collection
Darcie comment: I can totally SEE the make-shift shop. I can feel the time period without it specifying. Also, there is a purchase that plays a significant role in the plot. I won’t tell you. You have to read the book!
Gwyn pushed on the gate to their fenced-in garden through the drifted snow. With a final shove, she moved it far enough to squeeze through. Kneeling down, she lifted her face to the sun…Gwyn pushed a gloved hand down through the snow. The ground was hard and frozen, but it didn’t keep her from dreaming of spring. There was something about turning over the soil, the scent of it filling her head. Maybe it was that she loved watching things grow, or maybe she appreciated it all the more because the growing season was so short. – Tracie Peterson and Kimberley Woodhouse, All Things Hidden
Darcie comment: kind of sets a mood. Longing. Also gives insight to the main character as she interacts with her environment. You SEE she loves gardening. Nurturing. Making things grow. Which fits her occupation as a nurse.
So. What ROLE does your description play? Or is it just a mash of details like the one at the top of this article?
With pen to paper,