One of the most important, and one of the easiest to overlook, aspects of writing is description. Whether this is description of a character, a prop (you can see my theater work starting to come through), a setting, or whatever else how we decide to describe something tells our readers a lot about what is actually important in the story, and helps them to build the imaginary world that any story creates.
There are as many approaches to description as there are authors, but Glenn Cook’s Black Company series and David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin provide two easy outer markers. Cook has always been a no-nonsense writer and in The Black Company (possibly even more in the Dread Empire series) Cook has a habit of leaving the reader wondering what his characters actually look like. Liss on the other hand provides a very detailed description of the waste lagoon of a pig farm in The Ethical Assassin. Both are excellent writers, but the two have very different approaches to writing in general, and to description in particular. Cook likes action, he likes movement, he likes to get on with the story, while Liss likes you to know what every character, item, and location looks, sounds, smells, and sometimes tastes like. Personally, I like to be reminded what color a character’s hair is every now and then (I tend to forget), but I’d rather avoid the two sentence description of what pig excrement tastes like (a little exaggeration here… not as much as you’d think, but a little).
In general, there are two forms of description that an author can use to bring his character’s and world to life. The first, and most common, is a still description that simply lists qualities. This can be done poorly: Liam was tall, with long blond hair, red cheeks, a wide mouth, and a pointy nose. Or it can be done well: Liam was a tall man. His long blond hair bounced around his red cheeks, framing his wide, thin-lipped mouth. His most notable, and to some his most cumbersome, quality was his nose however, which stuck out of his face like a spear.
The goal in still description is to give a quick once over of the item being described so that the reader can form a simple picture in his head. The key to a good still description is to provide necessary details in a quick, but interesting fashion. For instance, breaking a still description into multiple sentences and adding a little minor action (like the bouncing hair) can make a still description much more vivid. Adding in visual metaphors can also help, though you need to be careful with this. While some hyperbole is effective in this kind of metaphor, it is fairly easy to go to far, and the wrong metaphor can ruin your scene. Consider, if I’ve just described Liam’s nose as spear-like, and then the first thing he does in the scene is passionately kiss someone, all of my readers are suddenly imaging this poor girl being run-through by his nose.
Living description is a little harder to master. A living description involves working your description seamlessly into the action of a scene. For instance: The door to the ballroom slammed open and Liam strode in. His blonde hair seemed to float around his face as he took the stairs two at a time, raising one black-gloved hand to point menacingly at Duke Clairmonte. Liam’s thin lips twisted into a snarl as he yelled, “There! It is the Duke who’s done it!” Duke Clairmonte stumbled back a few steps, gesturing confusedly as Liam thrust his spear-like nose into the Duke’s face and growled, “You killed the king.”
The advantage of a living description is that it both gives your readers a visual image and keeps the action flowing at the same time. However, the disadvantage is that it can sometimes be too much to follow at one time. The living description above is fairly crowded with imagery, and some of it is perhaps a little bit of a stretch, and this is a problem that you will often run into when writing a living description. It can be very difficult to seamlessly fit in the imagery that you want your readers to see.
Also, remember that description isn’t always a good thing. Something that my writing group tells me fairly often is that I’ve got too much description, and I felt the same way about Liss in The Ethical Assassin. However, this is something that is inevitably up to the relationship between the author and the reader. Some authors thrive on detailed descriptions of everything, and do it very well *cough*Frank Herbert*cough*, while other authors leave most of the details up to the reader’s imagination. As long as your readers aren’t getting board, you don’t have too much description, and as long as they can follow the story, you don’t have too little.
On the other hand, if you spend three pages tediously describing a sand dune *cough*George Lucas*cough*, or your readers aren’t exactly sure if the characters are supposed to be on a grassy plain, in the mountains, or beside a lake… possibly all three… or none of the above… you’ve got some problems and need to work on either cutting your description down, or filling it in respectively.