Description helps paint the world you’ve created without using unnecessary adjectives. It isn’t only what your characters can see, but also what they can hear, smell, taste and touch. It’s important not only in fantasy novels where writers often need to describe the things and place they’ve created, but also in contemporary novels. Mentioning your character enters a café doesn’t give the same sense of place as describing the place.
Example: She stepped inside the empty café, wondering why the place was so quiet. It didn’t take her long to realise when a cockroach ran across the cracked tiles in front of her.
More Than Sight
Involve all the senses. It isn’t necessary to use every sense with each new place or event. Describing every sense every time would slow the story down. Pick which sense or senses are the most important and use them to describe the scene.
Too Much Description
Large passages of description can slow the story down and have the reader skimming the information looking for the action. Where possible, spread the description throughout the action. This includes throughout sections of characters’ speech too.
Too Little Description
Too little is just as big a problem as too much description. If the characters are wandering around in a void and there’s nothing for them to interact with, the reader is left wondering where they are. Particularly at the start of a scene, readers need something to anchor them in the location.
Don’t Forget POV
It’s important to remember who your point of view character is. Can they see, hear or smell what you’re describing? If you’ve described the scene out the window, are they at the window looking out it or across the room and unable to see what’s happening outside? Do they understand what they’re looking at? You can filter the scene through their reactions to what’s around them. What a character does notice in a scene also says a lot about that character.
Is It Important?
There’s no need to describe everything in the scene. Most things people don’t notice anyway. By describing items in great detail you can give them far more importance than they deserve and disappoint the reader when it doesn’t amount to anything. Red herrings are of course allowed, but make sure you’re using them to take the reader’s attention away from the actual item of importance.
Show, Don’t Tell
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of always telling instead of showing when it comes to description. There are times when it isn’t possible to show due to various reasons such as slowing the pace of the story, but whenever possible, show.