Oh, sure, they exist in those long literary novels we're all forced to read in school, and they exist to some degree in commercial fiction, but I don't entirely believe in descriptions because what I really believe in imagination. With any really good imagination, less is more.
Thankfully, most readers have good imaginations. They may even prefer what they imagine while they're reading to what they see on television, thereby making them...readers.
And, as if to prove my point, when I grabbed a few books from my shelves, I found myself having a hard time locating descriptions. In an effort to drag myself into the current state of affairs, which I define as post-1995, I only selected books which were published after 1995. I really wanted to cut it off at 2000, but that proved too difficult, so I backed up a little. You see, I wanted this to be what is being done lately in the publishing industry. Not what was done twenty years ago when everyone had the patience to sit through paragraphs of descriptions and be perfectly content with this. There being less on television for one thing.
So, let us begin.
Point to consider: If your reader's eyes flicker down the page and see more than a couple of very dense paragraphs, there is going to be an immediate urge to skip over them. Therefore, you have to do something in those paragraphs which is going to make the reader want to read them. What treats can you give the reader to stop such dreadful behavior?
- Animate the inanimate. I promised I would stop quoting Elizabeth Eyre, the supreme master of this, but that doesn't mean I can quote someone else. Here is a description of London by Neil Gaiman, from Neverwhere:
It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parts and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names--Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl's Court, Marble Arch--and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as much as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.
This technique draws the reader in and makes what is being described become another character, in this case the character is London. This makes what might otherwise be a dull recitation of a cityscape into something alive and interesting. It feels like a character description, rather than just some "the city's narrow streets were filled with traffic and so on" kind of passage which doesn't accomplish anything other than get on the reader's nerves.
- Insert a sense of movement into the description. The problem with a lot of literary books is that the descriptions are static. They feel like someone just sitting on top of a hill somewhere describing what they are seeing. This is exactly the boring kind of tripe that readers will skip given half a chance. By inserting movement through the scene, you draw the reader in and keep them going. Here is an example by J.A. Jance from Devil's Claw.
The yellow school bus rumbled down the long dirt trail known as Middlemarch Road, throwing up a thick cloud of red dust that swirled high into the air behind it. Approaching a shotgun-pellet-pocked CURVES sigh, the bus slowed and then stopped beside a peeling blue mailbox sitting atop a crooked wooden post. Switching on the blinking red lights, the driver, Agnes Hooper, waited until the trailing dust blew past before she opened the door to discharge her only remaining passenger.
There is movement--the school bus coming down the road and halting--and action (including information about Agnes' personality--she cares enough to wait for the dust to settle) when the driver opens the door for her passenger. This paragraph isn't really straight description, it's narrative with descriptive passages woven into the action, but that's precisely why it works. Because instead of being just straight, long passages of description about a dusty road, the CURVES sign, and the peeling mailbox, these things are slipped in as the action occurs. So we have action and description combined.
- The only way you can get away with a static view is by coloring it with a character's perspective to the point where it says something important about the character. Sadly, I don't have an exact passage to quote for you, but I'll give you an example. Unfortunately I can remember neither the author nor the book it came from. The deal was, there was this hero and heroine who were working together and they came to this old house they were going to turn into their offices or something (I can't remember). Anyway, she describes it as this wonderful old Victorian with lovely gingerbread carvings, a fabulous turret, and great old rooms complete with hardwood floors. Her description of this place reveals her strong romantic streak, energy, and innate optimism. The hero then describes it. He sees a broken down old house that's huge (will cost a fortune to heat) and needs a lot of repairs. It's got all these God-awful carvings that will be hard as heck to sand down so they can be repainted, and the hardwood floors need to be refinished. His description reveals a strongly practical man who already has a lot on his plate and the last thing he needs is one more "fixer-upper" job. (I know EXACTLY how he feels.)
These descriptions were obviously much longer, but you see the point. The descriptions here aren't present to "set the scene" so much as to reveal who these two people are and how they view the world in very different ways. It is a point in the novel where you see the contrast and potential sources of conflict between the two (among other conflicts the author has, of course).
An important idea you should be thinking about at the moment is: do you really, really need that page-long description in order to set the scene? Probably not. In fact, if your description is there just to set the scene, you need to make that thing really, really short. Or animate it in some way. Make it funny. Make it sad. Give the reader something other than what amounts to a nice landscape painting on the wall. I mean, there's a reason so many hotels have landscapes on the walls in their rooms. They put people to sleep.