I am no expert on description. It's confusing, and difficult, and I don't get it. However, I know everyone gets told in school and creative writing classes that description is important. I've pretty much memorized all the usual explanations, because description and I have never been friends, so here's a quick recap:
Description of setting is important so that your reader knows where everything is going on. You don't want your reader lost in a sea of dialogue and random arm gestures and fight scenes. It lights up the reader's imagination and paints a picture. We would be lost without description.
Description of character is important to reveal more about the character. What the character wears. How the character stands. What the character's hair and makeup look like. What direction their eyebrows arch. All of these things can contribute greatly to the way a reader views your character.
Often the finest language an author uses is in passages of description. On another writing website similar to FictionPress (NovelJoy, for those interested), there was a forum asking members to post their favorite paragraphs that they'd written - ever. I'd say 90 percent of the paragraphs on the list were description. It was all good language. My English teacher sometimes gets enthralled by certain passages of description in the novels we read, and he reads them out loud just to let us hear the flowery language used.
Okay, recap over. I understand and appreciate these reasons. However, I believe there is always another side, and there is most certainly another side to description.
I've always been that reader who skips over paragraphs of description because I really don't care how nice that hill looked; I just care about what happens to Sammy and his pet dragon. In the same way, I rarely write much description into my stories. Call it laziness. I never saw the point. Anytime I try, it never looks like what's in my head, and it just frustrates me, so why bother? I've always been led to assume that it's wrong to care so little for description. The comments on every fictional narrative I've turned in for school read something along the lines of, "Please add more sensory details." Ah, yes, sensory details, how I abhorred those days in middle school English when all we talked about were sensory details.
Long story short, description has never captured my interest. I have never felt jipped by skipping over paragraphs in books. Am I the only one?
Enter Orson Scott Card, my favorite author, and Stephen King, a writer who I've never actually read because horror novels scare me. These are probably the two greatest influences on my writing. (How can Stephen King influence you if you've never read him? He wrote a guide to writing, suggested to me by a friend, called On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft that is just phenomenal. Moving on.)
Stephen King points out that the more description of your character you add, the more you alienate your reader. One of the greatest things about reading is that you, as the reader, get to use your imagination to live in a new world with your new friends, Protagonist and Secondaries (original names, right?) Describing in detail, down to the last juicy pimple, washes away your reader's own picture of the character. That picture forms unconsciously, just in the course of reading a story. Don't tell me that you've never had one of your favorite books turned into a movie, and you've looked at the poster for the first time and said, "No way! Character X is totally not supposed to look like that!"
Case in point: Grover in Percy Jackson. Raise your hand if you pictured him as black. Really. Of course, that's an extreme example (and also a pretty terrible movie), but describing your character can have that effect, if not quite so severe.
I have to point out that describing clothing and describing facial features is different. Clothing can say something about a character, if it is portrayed in the right way. Obviously, a person who wears Led Zeppelin t-shirts to school is a little different than a person who wears button-down shirts and slacks. However, rarely do facial features say anything about a person. I have a very square face. Okay, so what does that prove? Nothing. I'm sure we're all aware of the "independent jawline" and "disdainful nose" cliches. Facial features do not determine personality. Get more creative.
Then comes Orson Scott Card. I listened to Ender's Game on CD, and at the end of the recording is a little interview with Card about his writing, the story behind the series, the upcoming movie (November 1st, ahh!), etc. One of the things he said was that he got his start writing plays in college. As we all know, scripts are pretty much all dialogue, and more or less action/setting depending on how much autonomy the author wants the director to have. Card said that all his plays were those types of plays where it's only the actors on stage - and maybe a chair that can symbolize a train, a living room, or a schoolhouse, depending on what's going on in the play.
Why did he do this? To let the individual imagination have free reign over what's going on in the background. He only puts in specific description when he needs to, when it's important to the story. He lets dialogue and action speak as much for the setting as possible, in order to avoid adding in extra explanation of the scenery around the characters.
If you've read Card's books, maybe you know what I'm talking about. He writes science fiction, and Ender's Game takes place almost entirely on an orbiting space ship called Battle School. The initial response is probably, "Wow! A boarding school in space! There's so much description that has to be done!" But there isn't. There's next to none. He describes only the parts of the dorm rooms and hallways that are crucial to the plot. In other words, nobody at Battle School cares what the ceilings look like, so the ceilings are ignored altogether. I couldn't begin to tell you what the ceilings at Battle School look like. But it doesn't feel like a naked story. I have a very vivid picture in my head of all the scenes in Ender's Game, and very few of those pictures have anything to do with actual words in the book.
I often write in first person or very tight third person. My rule of thumb is to describe the things that my character would notice - not things that I or a reader might find interesting. The things that your character does and doesn't choose to describe can be very telling of both the character and the setting. Back to Ender's Game. It's sci-fi, so they have different technology from us. They call them "desks," and they're basically large tablets that people carry around and use for just about everything. But Ender, a six year old who doesn't know anything different, never stops to explain all the capacities of a desk, or what it looks like, or how big it is, or anything like that. It would be out of character for him to do so. The desk has just always been a desk, and that's how it is. Not for us, but for him. And that's the most important thing.
So there's my two cents on description. Mostly, I wrote this to give you an alternate view of the "truths" taught to you by your middle school English teachers. Writing is very fluid when it comes to rules, and this is one that is made out to be something that rains fire on you when you break it. It's not. I just thought I'd explain, "Hey, if you're feeling discouraged about description, here's a little pick-me-up."
But, I send you off with a warning. Whatever you decide, be it about description or plotting or view-point or what have you, always have a reason. Never make decisions "just because." Don't skip the description because you're lazy. Know how description affects your story, know how no description affects your story, and make an educated choice. Your readers will thank you.