Do you ever have one of those days where you wake up in the morning, get dressed, look in the mirror and think: dang, I’m forty-something, I gave birth to six kids and I look good! But then, night falls, evening comes and you put on a dress for a business event, look in the mirror and think: dang, I look like a forty something mom in a too tight dress. My boobs are pointing south, my gut is threatening to pop this silk and what in the world happened to my knees? Same day. Same mirror. Same body. Your body hasn’t changed all that much in a few passing hours. What changed is your own perception.
Good description does the same thing. How a main character looks at his world tells us eons about what is going on inside that character’s head. We can also learn a lot about a character by a description of how he grooms (or doesn’t), what his space looks like and how he sees the people around him.
Description is also great for building suspense. Next time you watch a suspenseful movie, take note of the music, the sound, the stealth—if it is well done, things are carefully choreographed to ratchet the suspense. I just watched the movie Hitchcock—loved it. It’s about Hitchcock’s struggles to produce Psycho. You might not have enjoyed Psycho, but you have to admit—it’s suspenseful. Norman Bate’s house—could it get any creepier? Consider Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's novel, Rebecca, the moors in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and even the forests in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. All of those stories had incredibly visual settings that added something to the stories.
Everything you write should serve a purpose, or several purposes, i.e. character development, suspense, plot movement. What you don’t want to do is use your descriptive prose to show off. Remember, no one likes a show off. One writer instructor called show off prose "self indulgent." Keep that in mind--is your prose enhancing your story, or inflating your ego?
That being said, I’m offering everyone a chance to show off. If you have a great description scene, please share.
Here’s one of mine:
Outside, the wind whistled and moaned around the library, tossing branches and bending trees. A near human-like scream tore Blair’s attention away from the open dictionary, but after a moment of wind listening, she returned to her work, collecting words and definitions for the upcoming week.
The Rhyme’s Library (A murder mystery, because you just know nothing good is going to happen while the wind is screaming.)