First, make the reader focus at near objects with minute detail, and also at far-away objects. This is a type of contrast that gives a 3D image to your work.
Next, remember that some say the only purpose for description is to create a mood or a feeling.
I would suggest that there are two components to this: first you draw something with the potential to carry the elements of the mood you want to transmit. Then you do something to transmit it.
Let’s say you want to create a dark place where some sort of nebulous danger awaits.
First you draw a mental picture of the things you want to see. But to do this well, you might want to brainstorm it by listing a bunch of mood objects, noises, smells and textures that might be found in this sort of place.
You might make one of the objects symbolic of or related to something in the hero’s life…. The hero lost her daughter in a fire she caused by falling asleep while smoking, for instance. So here in this solitary dark room there is an antique doll, a hundred years old if a day, with cigarette burns on its belly and chest.
You’ve got your list, you pick out the best stuff, make a mental image of the room and start putting the stuff where you want it.
It’s going to be effective if it’s not too wordy, not too long, not too static, and has objects that are interesting in and of themselves (so the reader is not just interested in getting through the boring description). Example: in the “secret” chamber of the empty jewelry box there’s a tiny gyroscope, a child’s toy from an era where subtlety existed, even for children.
Don’t groan, that’s rude.
Now I’m thinking the next step is to somehow transmit the feelings of this room to the reader.
To do this, I don’t know. But I have some suggestions, at least.
Make the hero’s emotional reactions subtle, less than you hope the reader will have.
Bring the viewpoint character in with his back exposed to something that he and the reader disagree about. Perhaps the hero doesn’t think the object to his right is anything special so he looks away. But the reader is more concerned about some detail the viewpoint character cavalierly described and dismissed.
Have your hero fixate on one object. Maybe she stops and back-stories on the object’s history – briefly. Maybe the object falls from her hands and cracks on the floor. If so, it was expensive and now she’s worried about having to pay for it. Now you have two worries going on at the same time. This is like real life! And two worries amplify each other. The reader is worried about “what’s behind the door,” and the hero is worried about paying for something she just broke.
That reminds me… Naah, I’ll write about this later. But for now, I just want to say that the human mind finds it exhilarating to do two things at the same time. For instance, most of the best songs have a place where two melodies are going on at the same time – or two melody-like things. They tend to be simple melodies that are down to a level where the average person and I can keep both melodies going at the same time in our heads even after the song’s over. The same kind of thing might just apply to writing fiction. I’m too much of a hack to know, but since I’m infallible and fearless, I’ll write more about it later.
Description is, according to one guru, the place where the magic happens in a story. I don’t know, it could be. I tend to write pages of “talking heads” sometimes. You know, pages where one guy talks to the other and nothing else happens? Then I go back and it feels like work to put in descriptions of things here and there, just for the sake of making the talking heads seem attached to chairs and whatnot. I’m not going to be able to write great description while I’m struggling to write decent dialogue. But, if I can make the process of writing description more interesting, it will be more fun and better for the reader (that theoretical person).
M. Talmage Moorehead