Description. That's when you tap a rich vein of adjectives and adverbs that will allow your story to unreel like a movie in your reader’s head, the same way it is playing in yours, right? Your specificity will ensure that the reader can see just how long the hair, how dark the skin, what style the shirt, where certain people are standing, and how the tables are arranged in the banquet hall.
To this I say that length of hair will become relevant if its change signals character change; skin color will become relevant if certain socio-economic issues or prejudices are at play; shirt style may tell us more about the picayune tendencies of the observer than it does about the character; and where certain people are standing and how the tables are arranged in the hall is only important if a bomb will soon rearrange all and the bodies must be identified—and then, you may earn relevance for hair length and skin color and what they were wearing as well.
Description is most effective when it creates meaning, deepens characterization, or serves the plot. The weakest reason for describing is so your reader can see the same picture you are seeing. I’d go so far as to say if that’s all your description is doing, it isn’t doing enough.
Here are some guidelines that might help you get the highest literary value from description.
Edit for relevance
In the first draft, build your world by describing at length. Once you find your story, though, carve away the irrelevant details, and make the best use of what's left. Look how John Cheever did this in his short story, “An Educated American Woman.” Cheever is introducing his main character, Jill Chidchester Madison, who has light brown hair, small breasts, and brown eyes.
Many authors would have stopped at this roll call of visual elements, which the reader may or may not have remembered. Not Cheever. Check this out:
Her light-brown hair, at the time of which I’m writing, was dressed simply and in a way that recalled precisely how she had looked in boarding school twenty years before. Boarding school may have shaded her taste in clothing; that and the fact she had a small front and was one of those women who took this deprivation as if it was something more than the loss of a leg. Considering her comprehensive view of life, it seemed strange that such a thing should have bothered her, but it bothered her terribly.… Her eyes were brown and set much too close together, so that when she was less than vivacious she had a mousy look.
With the spin Cheever puts on this description, the character of Jill Chidchester Madison springs to life in full three-name, backstory-to-present-day splendor. We are not likely to forget these details because of the way Cheever attributed meaning to them.
Too often a hunk of description has a way of stopping the story to take a picture. Watch here how the picture keeps moving in Kelly Simmons’ novel Standing Still. Bound in the backseat of the car, the kidnapped protagonist, Claire, frets over how the kidnapper knew her husband was away:
Couldn’t anyone watching me know? Count cars in the driveway, watch Sam’s golf magazines pile up on the marble counter, see one person picking up twigs after the storm. I had five laundry baskets, six garbage cans, three daughters, two hands. I carried in dry cleaning, rotisserie chicken, and false cheerfulness at dinnertime. I doled out the father tickles the girls needed at night. And I wonder: Couldn’t any thief, kidnapper, or murderer watching me juggle the mail, the groceries, and a briefcase as I wipe the cat’s feet and put juice into sippy cups recognize me as a woman whose husband was gone? That was the kind of zoom-lens the FBI needed: Look, there, go in tight…see that, Lieutenant? That woman is about to detonate all over her recyclables!
Far from stopping the story action with a wall of words, this active description of Claire's life reveals much about her relationships and attitude.
Point toward story
Detailed description is one of the ways a writer highlights what’s important in a story. Let’s take a look at an example I made up that could be found in a middle grade book about revenge between two boys.
On the first day of school, Aaron climbed the broad steps he’d been skateboarding down all summer. Their concrete, worn smooth in the middle, still retained a bit of heat from the summer’s sun. Girls crowded the steps and stood in small cliques, wearing skirts that barely meet the minimum dress code standards. Jessica added highlights to her hair and they looked really good. Aaron walked past, closer than he reasonably needed to. She smelled like strawberries, but the product in her hair made spikes so stiff her head looked like a weapon. She was standing beside a fountain fashioned in the shape of a boy playing an instrument. Instead of music coming from his trumpet, water flowed from it.
In film, this would be called an establishing shot. But it’s better than film, because I’ve used several senses to draw the reader in—but in to what? Oops, that’s right, it was supposed to be a revenge story.
You lose the faith of your reader when you allocate word count to description that adds nothing but bulk to your story. This opening would gain relevance if Aaron remembered getting dunked in that fountain. If he was scanning that crowd for the one person he hoped not to see—Tug. If Tug marched up the stairs like he owned them and put a proprietary arm around Jessica. Or if the description of the school was crafted in such a way that it created an atmosphere of dread: Each stair leading me closer to a confrontation that would add an ugly footnote to my school record.
Spring from story
How many ways are there to say a woman is thin? If your descriptions spring from your setting, your characters' emotions, your characters' lexicons, and your characters' voices, the ways are endless. In addition, consider the way that description can say as much about the observer as it does about the observed. Check out the following excerpt, which pulls everything I've said here together. The description is relevant, it moves, it points to story, and springs from story. See if you can pull that off in your own writing, and watch your stories blossom!