Editorial notes concentrate rightly on plot and characters, but description is often neglected or taken for granted. It can add so much to a novel or script that it doesn’t deserve to be a Cinderella.
In a script, (besides denoting the action) description consists of the crucial few words you use to tell a director what mood you’re after for a scene.
In a novel, description is where the author is also the director. Besides the obvious need to ground the characters in a time and place, there are four other functions to consider:
Your character is shown to their room a badly-run hotel. You can vividly show this with the unpleasant hairs in the bath-tub, the sticky patch on the carpet, the television that receives only channels in Welsh. The tone can convey whether the character is depressed, infuriated, or amused – and the reader picks up on that, entering into the mood.
A woman brings her emotionally cold husband a Coke with too much ice. That’s all the author needs to say, in order to drop this clearly but inconspicuously into the reader’s head.
3. Pauses and passage of time
A character considers how to answer their companion. The author can drop in a bit of set dressing here, while there’s a pause, rather than clogging up the momentum with it earlier on when action needs to happen.
4. What’s going through the character’s head
A boy’s walking down the street with his girlfriend, but the description tells us about the graffiti on the wall. What’s going on? Clearly he’s so blinded by love that he can hardly bear to look at her.
Description is one of the most subtle but most powerful set of tools a writer has.