I am an impatient reader. When encountered with a paragraph (or more!) of blooming flowers and flowing fabrics, my eyes tend to skim through them and look for the juicy parts.
Descriptions are like an iceberg: when used right, they will drive the story, when overdone, they will drag it down with them. What needs describing is usually about 20% of what writers want to describe.
For a long time, I was quite reluctant to do much describing myself. This mistake led me to many hours of rewriting, so I started to look for descriptions that worked.
What makes this description work? Is it really just about length? Let's take some golden advice from the great master of writing.
How to use descriptions
Like any other word in your story, descriptions have a purpose (and it's not just helping the readers visualise). There are at least two things descriptions can help you with:
1. Bring your characters to life
When describing someone's home, we probably don't need to know the colour of their sofa. However, if you tell us it's covered in breadcrumbs and old wine stains, this tells us something about the character.
We don't find out how big Carl's house is or which colour the curtains are, but we do learn that Carl is not very keen on gardening or fixing stuff.
2. Create or deepen the atmosphere
The great master of writing, Stephen King, said that "description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's." See how Eugenides manages to achieve just that:
We are immediately placed in the scene and breathe in its atmosphere. Elvis Costello guy, pink hair, Tainted Love. You don't need to know what the bar actually looks like to get the picture.
The most important questions to ask is what the description will do for you. Will it help push the story forward? Show the nature of your characters? Is the place you want to describe important? Why? Make sure your description captures it.
Descriptions are not a padding, they are the juice of your story.
Have you found a good description formula? Please share it. Coming up soon: how to use comedy techniques to make descriptions more interesting.
This post is based on a workshop I gave during the annual BWC Writer's Retreat.