Description by its nature stops the forward movement of story. No matter how beautifully executed the passage, no matter how well a writer engages the senses, description alone goes nowhere. To be dynamic, it has to be part of the physical movement of the plot or part of the development of the character. This is done by not just describing something, but by showing the effect on the character and how the character reacts.
In the 1980s, bookracks in grocery stores were full of gothic romances. Perhaps you remember seeing those covers: a brooding mansion in the background, a woman in a diaphanous gown running away from the house, looking back at it in fear. Despite their triteness, those were dynamic covers: the pictorial description of the house, the effect on the character (fear), and how the character reacted (running away.) Written description can be as vibrant as those covers; it just means taking the description a step further and filtering it through the senses of a character.
In this example from my novel More Deaths Than One, we get an impression of the hotel in Bangkok from Kerry’s reaction.
Bob opened his eyes, then squeezed them shut against the light. From the heaviness of the air and the brightness of the day, he presumed it was mid-morning. He opened his eyes again and this time managed to keep them open.
He turned his head toward Kerry. She lay on her back, hands behind her head, eyes focused on the ceiling. Following her gaze, he realized she was staring at one of the ubiquitous green lizards. Her body vibrated with excitement.
He smiled to himself. Leave it to Kerry to be thrilled with this small reminder they were no longer in Colorado.
“Isn’t this great?” she said in a hushed voice. “We have our own private watch lizard.”
Bob brushed away a fly buzzing around his head. “We could use a few more.”
Later, the description of the hotel becomes an integral part of the Bob’s worry.
The hotel was built around a courtyard accessible from all the rooms. Bob took his breakfast out to the courtyard, but couldn’t enjoy the fountain, the bushes, the flowers. He kept stealing glances at the windows, wondering if anyone was watching him.
When dark clouds rolled across the sky, pushing a stifling humidity before them, he took refuge in his room. It did not have air-conditioning, but the slowly revolving ceiling fan offered a modicum of relief.
He paced the floor, feeling as if he were a stranger in this land. It didn’t matter that he had lived here for sixteen years, he realized; any place would seem alien when he wasn’t with Kerry. She was his home.
He tried not to worry about her all alone on the streets, but as time passed, the worry grew too strong to ignore.
Then the rains fell. There was no light spattering gradually increasing in intensity as in Colorado, but an abrupt opening of the skies as if someone had turned on a spigot.
Because of the emotions evoked, the brief descriptions in no way stop the forward movement of the story.
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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.