Description. Whether it’s the food on the table or a mountain valley, every story needs it. Because without description, the reader would be lost.
What is the purpose of description? To describe, obviously. But it’s far more than that. THE REAL PURPOSE OF DESCRIPTION IS TO TOUCH YOUR READERS’ EXPERIENCE SO THAT, THROUGH THEIR OWN MEMORIES, THEY CAN PUT THEMSELVES IN YOUR STORY! Read that again. Write that down. Tattoo that on your inner eyelids.
Describing what something looks like evokes memory, doesn’t it? Only minimally. It’s low hanging fruit that everybody knows and is easily skimmed over. Writers often settle for “this is what it looks like.” Even when written with great elegance it doesn’t truly bring the readers’ experience into play.
1) Use all the senses. Humans are visual creatures. No matter how beautifully written, how something looks is the routine, default description and readily forgotten. Taste, feel, sound, or smell are secondary senses and thus run deeper into memory. Which ignites your memory more: the sight of green grass, or the smell of a newly-mowed lawn?
Speaking of which; smell may be the most powerful sense of all. The olfactory receptors in the human brain are, physically, next to the temporal lobe (those for memory), while the receptors for the other senses are further removed in the parietal lobe.
2) Describe through emotions. The best way to touch a reader’s memory is for the character to describe a scene through their own emotions and memories. Depicting a place or item on its own is a little flat. How the character feels about that place or item enlivens it. Telling details of a clown or doll is one thing; the joy or terror it emotes in the character—and thus, the reader—cements it in the readers’ experience.
3) Less is more. Sometimes a writer can get so wrapped up in elegant prose they can pile on the description. As in most areas of writing, fewer, succinct, well-chosen words are usually better. Celerity—a now-forgotten term used frequently in the Civil War—means doing something quickly, efficiently, with as little waste as possible. Try always to write with celerity.
4) Specifics beat generalities. This is true of any depiction, but particularly if you’re describing a group of people or things. Generalities are easily glossed over. Specifics provoke memories. Pick out two or three, and let them represent the whole.
Lunch sat on the table versus a plate of pastrami and rye sandwiches, an open bag of Cheetos, and a bowl of apples sat on the table. Joe saw ships being unloaded on the dock versus Joe saw a crane hoist a net full of wooden boxes. A forklift lifted a huge pallet, then backed down a wide gangplank. Down the quay two shirtless men, sweat glistening on their skin, heaved crates into neat stacks. Specifics beat generalities.
5) Rule of three. In any descriptive list, three is the optimum number. Good writers rely on the rule of three, much like good baseball pitchers rely on a fastball. But rules are made to be broken, and routine can be boring, so it doesn’t hurt to mix it up occasionally with a longer or shorter list. After all, the best pitchers have a changeup, or slider, or curveball, or—heaven forbid—a spitball, to surprise.
6) Avoid clichés. That should go without saying, but this IS a list of Eight Ways to Improve Your Description.
7) Compare and contrast. A great way of depiction, especially for hard-to-describe items like feelings, is to compare them with something similar, or contrast them with something dissimilar. Similes and metaphors come in handy for connecting with the reader’s experience. The fiery, searing pain in his hand felt like being caught in a bear trap hot from a blacksmith’s forge. But don’t overdo it when using similes and metaphors. Remember #3, less—or fewer, in this case—is more.
8) Practice. Pick out two of anything, two trees, two houses, two mountains, two towns. Describe each in detail. How do they differ? How are they similar? How do they smell, feel, sound, or taste? Are those senses similar, or different? What emotions do they invoke in your characters? How does your protagonist feel about that place or item? How does your antagonist feel differently about it? Your other main characters? Your secondary characters?
Just remember: THE REAL PURPOSE OF DESCRIPTION IS TO TOUCH YOUR READERS’ EXPERIENCE SO THAT, THROUGH THEIR OWN MEMORIES, THEY CAN PUT THEMSELVES IN YOUR STORY!