Writing Fiction 101 says that nothing goes into the story without a reason, including description.
Many new authors get lost in the details. The story stops for what I like to call tiptoeing through the tulips. If a reader gets bogged down in heavy desciption, she will skip right out of the garden.
Careful editing demands that the author pay attention to the details. Some questions to ask when reviewing your manuscript are:
1. Does the description belong in the scene?
Whether it is a person, a place, or a thing being described, there must be a reason. The more detailed the description, the more important that person, place, or thing must be.
Whenever description is utilized, the author must decide how much detail is necessary. If the location is important to the dark mood of the tale, the mood is set by describing not only the surroundings but the conditions. A woman walking through Central Park on a dark night who feels a stalker on her heels is not going to see the beauty of the moon. She will see the dark clouds from under which the moon’s glow is diminished. The colorful flowers she hurries past will not catch her attention as much as the spindly branches on the leaf-barren trees.
However, if the mood isn’t as important as character, that is where the description belongs: Mary hurried through Central Park avoiding the gaze of the passersby. She wrapped her tattered brown coat around her and stared down at her faded purple tennis shoes. The worn soles caused her feet to blister against the rough sidewalk. With a hand that hadn’t seen water or soap in over a week, she ran her fingers through her greasy hair. So life had come to this. Six months ago, she’d been a high-ranking executive in the country’s largest mortgage firm. Now, she lived in a cardboard box in an alley, and she had no idea what to do next.
If the surroundings are merely a place for a scene or the characters to have conflict, the description should be kept to a very minimum. Include only those areas of description that are necessary.
2. Is the description told through the correct point-of-view (POV) character?
This is especially important in describing a character. For John to describe himself in detail seldom works. Why? Well, because people do not normally stand around thinking about their description. If John, in his POV, thinks how ruggedly handsome he is with the strong tilt of his chin and his wavy dark hair, he better be a very arrogant, self-centered character because that’s how he will be perceived. A device used by some authors is to have the POV character see himself in the mirror and describe himself. This is overdone. However, it can still work if the author has a good reason, like say, John has been beaten to a pulp by the town’s bully. John might peer through a slit in his swollen eyes and describe what he finds horrifying about the new arrangement of his face by the bully’s knuckles.
3. Does the description stop the reader in his tracks much the way a back story dump of information will do?
Always, always, always move the story forward. In the example of Mary walking through the park, did you notice that the description moved with the scene. Don’t let description stand still unless there is a purpose for it.
If the heroine simply wants to find an island of peace, and she has found her port in the storm, the description can be the movement: Mary took a deep breath and inhaled the island air. The palm trees swayed in the coconut-scented air. Seagulls squawked, circling overhead. The sun beat down upon her shoulders. She raised her hands upward. She’d come through the storm. She’d traded the cardboard box in the alley for a small beach house in the open spaces of paradise, and she’d helped others like her do the same.
As you edit, check your description. An honest author will realize when they are prone to skip out of the garden of their own prose.