One of the chief mistakes novice writers make when they write description is to break away from the story to show the story world. You know – here’s my characters about to escape for their lives, but then all of a sudden, here is a page all about their mountain home and its history. And because the writer let go of the conflict thread, the reader skims.
But it is entirely possible to keep rolling with the story, and still lavish the reader with rich, sensory descriptions that paint the story world so the reader can not only see it, but can taste and touch it. See this description from the Esther Forbes’ classic set in revolutionary Boston, Johnny Tremain:
From where he stood he could see a great ship slowly warping in. No coaster this, no mere boat from the Sugar Isles. A few young gentlemen wearing fashionable clothes, as well as the usual dockhands and porters gathered around to see her come in.
On the cobblestones almost beside him came the heavy clatter of a great carriage. A coachman bawled to the lesser folk, “Make way! Make way!” The rumble and rattle of a ruby red carriage, the black horses with glittering silver mounted harnesses and on the door, the familiar crest, a rising eye.
The description is alive with sound, sight and even taste. Words like sugar, clatter, bawled, ruby glittering practically bathe the reader in the senses. Forbes uses words like warping and rumble to keep the language moving and active. And don’t you get a good picture of the place?
But it’s also part of the action. Johnny, a penniless and desperate adolescent, is made small by the huge ship, the carriage clattering beside him and the fancy gentlemen. The rising eye on the carriage gives a sinister feel to the scene. And in a larger sense, Johnny is urgently seeking the man who rides in the carriage, so the action is never lost.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be huge action or a roaring part of the conflict either. This next description is from Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice, a more leisurely novel, and is part of a scene that shows a budding romance.
They set off, footsteps scrunching in the frozen ruts. The air was as sweet as chilled wine. The thin sunshine warmed their backs and caused flurries of melted snows to drift down from the upper branches. They passed the farm, the gamekeeper’s cottage, and by the garden gate of Rose Miller’s little cottage.
“It’s the sort of place where one could feel happily snug for a lifetime,” Carrie said.
Again, the senses are strong – scrunching footsteps, ruts of snow, air like chilled wine, thin sunshine, drifting flurries. There’s no sense of urgency here. But the characters keep moving as they walk. And the bright description of the pair alone in a world of snow maintains the romantic mood, as the reader waits for a goal to be met – the first kiss that happens at the end of the scene.
So by all means, take time to paint the story world. Use vivid language. Use the senses. But don’t forget to make your description active and tie it to the action/conflict.