“Show, Don’t Tell.” Write scenes, not exposition.
Description is important because:
Details create the life on the page
If there is one key to the difference between amateur and professional writing, this is it.
Do you know why agents toss certain manuscripts aside without even pausing to roll their eyes? Not because they’re imps of Satan. But because they can often tell from a single page whether or not the writer has any experience at all with what they’re describing. And that authenticity is essential.
Do you know why Grisham sells? Not because he’s Dickens. But because he fills his novels with the telling details of his characters’ worlds. Those details make his shenanigans ring true—as though he’s chronicling the real adventures of real people.
Readers want that. Even when they’re freaking terrifying adventures.
Readers read for new experiences and new angles on old experiences
We all know how to live our own lives. I don’t need some faceless writer out there to tell me what it’s like to be me (although if they could tell me where my toothbrush has gone, that would be fab).
A great deal of incredibly poor storytelling gets bought and gobbled up every single day solely for the sake of the experiences described. Best sellers routinely set their stories in celebrity fat farms, tourist destinations (the Louvre!), cruise ships (the Titanic!), pretty much anywhere in New York City. Readers want to believe they are also celebrities, tourists, on a world cruise. (And some of the powers of the publishing world, apparently, want to believe that everyone wants to live with them.)
Give your reader an experience they couldn’t get without you.
Writing is about using your senses to recreate the world
Flannery O’Connor taught me this in her canonical work on writing, Mystery and Manners, decades ago, and it was an epiphany I’ve never gotten over. Five senses. All the words in your language. Put them together: a believable fictional world.
However, description is not important because:
Setting is static, and character is dynamic
The reason stories aren’t entirely description is that readers don’t read only for the visual (or audio or olfactory or tactile). They can get that from a painting—and in less than a thousand words, too.
Readers read for character. They want to know how that charismatic rascal is going to pull yet another Houdini to extricate themself from whatever dreadful predicament they’ve gotten themself into. They want it to feel real, sure. But they really want it to move.
Readers want room to project themselves into your scenes
You’ll hear teachers, editors, and other mentors pussyfooting around this one—“Use enough detail, but not too much.”
How much is too much?
“You’ll just know.”
No, you won’t.
Too much is more than the absolutely bare-bones essential bits it takes to sketch this one scene with only those details the characters need in order to get through their story to the epiphany at the end. O’Connor used the general rule three telling strokes to sketch a character or scene.
If your scene has towering philodendrons and leafy maidenhair and fat succulents and towering ficas and leafy swordfern and fat nasturtiums and towering bamboo and leafy begonias and fat little lemon trees, and the characters need a sturdy flower, a lacey screen, and a long stick. . .pick what you need and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
Writing is about going beyond the senses into the very meaning of life
Which means even Emil Zola had a heck of a time creating great fiction out of purely Naturalistic description. He (and Dashiell Hammett, too) needed both action and dialog to flesh it out.
Fortunately, you actually can get beyond the five senses through just the nuts & bolts of detail. That’s part of the magic of fiction. In fact, if you’ve crafted your story properly they can be pretty simple nuts & bolts.
One of my favorite endings ever is Raymond Chandler’s beautiful, “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.”
Even if he’d left off the exposition about Velma he’d have said what he needed to say, putting the reader into that simple final experience after the long, rich, complex experience of his novel—letting them understand for themself the Whole Point.