We've had several requests to talk about ways to handle description. It seems there's some anxiety out there about this topic. How do you incorporate description without slowing the pacing? How do you layer description into the text so that it doesn't interrupt the action? How much is too little, and how much is too much?
Before we can really tackle this topic, though, we ought to take a look at a related matter that might prevent you from ever needing to contemplate these questions. Let's start with definitions.
Narrative which sets out the details of setting and the sensory impact of the characters and environment.
Narrative which, although its primary purpose is to convey action, interior monologue, dialogue, or exposition, achieves a descriptive impact through word choices and sentence structures.
Before you can begin to assess how much description your narrative can (or should) include, you need to assess the overall descriptive impact of the prose. Do you write,
The woman ate a bite of cake.
Or do you write,
The cook-off judge tasted the caramel fudge torte.
Or do you write,
The cook-off judge dipped her fork into the caramel fudge torte. A strand of amber filling stretched across the pathway to her lips, and the spectators leaned forward to stare. She tasted, and almost as if unable to help her reaction, her eyes temporarily drifted closed and she lost her blank, stiff judge's posture.
Now, there's a lot more to these passages than additional text. The length does matter, of course, because you want to grant actions as much weight as their relevance requires. If the pov character baked the cake, then the third passage might make more sense. If the pov character is a cop searching the crowd for a suspect, maybe not so much detail about the gooey goodness.
Now, here's about as close to a rule of thumb as you'll ever get. Relative to the total narrative, you want to spend enough visual space on relevant details as is necessary for the reader to understand their relative importance.
In other words, if your text is very fast and light and streamlined, a very small relative amount of descriptive prose can shine a big spotlight on a moment. But if you write detailed, leisurely prose, you'll need to grant even more space to important details if you want them to register with the readers as important.
(Some of you right now are thinking, But if it's not important, why include it at all? This is where art comes in. Otherwise, all romance novels could be printed as, "These people fell in love. The end." And mysteries could be printed as, "A guy died, and another guy caught the killer. The end.")
The question is not whether a detail is important at all, but whether a detail is important enough to warrant the amount of space you assign it.
Other than the amount of space given to this moment, though, look at some of the other changes. We have highly specific nouns -- not just a woman, but a cook-off judge. Not just a cake, but a caramel fudge torte.
We have precise and vivid verbs -- not just ate, but tasted. And look at the additional verbs in the third passage. Dipped, stretched, leaned -- all verbs of motion that convey things we can see with the mind's eye.
Finally, in the third piece, we've broken down the act of tasting a cake into several separate steps, each described not just in terms of the visuals, but in terms of the impact on the people involved. The crowd reacts. The judge reacts. These reactions enhance the impact on the reader.
Let's try one in the comments. Here's a plain jane sentence -- your task is to do two new sentences, one light but more descriptive, and the other more developed for greater impact.
The man walked through the snow to get his mail.
Have fun with it!