I never thought I’d say this, but almost all of it.
I used to be huge on description. Writing it and reading it. I was one of the weirdos who loved long juicy paragraphs filled with artistic depictions and metaphors and…
Well. You get the picture.
Lately, though, I’ve been questioning how much is enjoyable for readers. For the most part, I’d say readers want to know what the story is. “Tell me a good yarn,” a reader will say. “Don’t bog down the story.”
It seems to me, then, that description should further the story. That’s it. That’s really description’s job. It’s not to pretty up the pages. It’s to help drive and shape the plot.
Internal / Emotional Description
Oh, man, this is where I could just spend days as a writer. The internal world of the characters. How they feel at any given moment. What they’re thinking. Again, though, if description’s job is to further the story, the internal world should really be focused on lines of thought that show a character’s motivation. Explain why a character is behaving a certain way. Or about to behave in a certain way. Then those descriptions will inevitably lead to action.
New writers often get lost in this one: describing every character’s outfit. The shape of noses. The way their hair is cut. And really, it’s the type of description you need the least of. You really don’t need much in the way of physical description to bring a character to life. Ask yourself: What kinds of characteristics help paint a picture of who a character is?
For example, a character with a repeatedly-broken nose might be a hothead who winds up ruffling feathers throughout, in ways that create tension and, of course, lead to moments of intense action in the book.
Nothing sets the tone of a piece quite like setting. But settings also shape what kinds of events can take place. Certainly, small towns offer different types of gatherings and chances for characters to meet up (I just recently discovered the Gilmore Girls, so of course I’m thinking here of Stars Hollow). Sometimes, though, characters can be confined–locked into buildings, or quarantined. They can be in jury duty. Or jail. They might be on a long airplane flight. How is action different in these settings as compared to characters who are in bigger cities, or have freedom to move about?
Where you set your book can have a real impact on the action that can logically take place. When you describe your setting, especially at the opening of a book, think about the plot points you have planned or outlined. And think about what details the reader needs to know in order to be prepared for those events.
Tying description to the action will help keep you from providing too much information, too many long paragraphs that seem (to the reader) to amount to nothing of substance. In this way, instead of bogging your book down, description can actually add propulsion, giving your work a new page-turning element.