Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it is likely that the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and atmosphere. Now I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end can be a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.
A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil rich and fertile with crops ready to harvest. Only one town occupied the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.
That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:
Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them. The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but something she couldn’t name kept her eyes lifting to the mountains towering on all sides and dreaming about what was on the other side. At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. Weightless and delicate in her hand – she could see the tiny veins that ran through it, already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne spun to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew that change had found her.
Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.
Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.) None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”
Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.
The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.
John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. Night was coming quickly and the streetlights lit up as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. He didn’t care that he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life that he could love, and he messed it up. John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.
While description is essential to your story, don’t over do it. You want to avoid purple prose – writing which is so full of description it goes over the top and pushes the reader out of the story. Read Dickens, he got paid by the word, so lots of description.
The other thing you want to avoid with description is putting it in the wrong place. The time to describe the alley is not after the fight begins. Description will freeze the action and you don’t want to do that. Describe the setting at the start of a scene, use beats in dialogue to show more of it. Better yet have the character interact with the setting.
Instead of standing in the door cataloguing the paint colour and furniture in a room, have your character walk through it, bumping into things, sitting in chairs, wincing at the colour. In this way you have description, but you also have character. The settings which become almost a character in their own right are the ones which affect the people in the story directly.
Have a look at Character Assassination for tips on describing characters.