Nothing slows a piece of fiction down more than having a lengthy character or scene description plunked into a piece. Also having paragraphs of exposition regarding the fictional world can seem necessary to the author, but pull readers out of the story.
Setting the scene and introducing characters is necessary. Further, if the piece is a fantasy or science fiction story the world may be very exotic and the characters unusual and need to be described. So how does one go about doing this?
First, there are ways to set up the story so that character and world descriptions fit in naturally into the story. One of these might be to have a naive character or a character who is exploring and cataloging the new sights that they are witnessing. In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” Harry serves as the naive character who has come to Hogwarts and knows very little about the wizarding world. As he learns so too does the reader. Another example would be J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in which Frodo is the naive character who is leaving the Shire.
The words in fiction should never get in the way of the story. An economy of words and careful placement of those words that are the best ones to do the job should be strived for. If one can make the words in a story do double or triple duty, all the better. Rather than having lengthy descriptions, thinking about those small details that could be slipped in in my opinion can create this kind of smooth writing.
Let me give a couple of examples.
Story start number one:
Her horse snorted and stamped, Morgana pulled the cloak close about her. The wind ruffled the fur lining of her hood tickling her cheek. Duridan rubbed the pommel of his sword and pulled his horse to a stop. Through the blowing snow, he could see the golden light of a fire through the slits of the shuttered windows. Where there should have been laughter coming from the inn, he heard only a sign swinging and rattling in the night. “Your Majesty, I fear we may need to press on.”
Story start number two:
Holding her cloche hat on her head, Ilsa pressed through the crowd. Her heels sank in the soft soil as she rushed past a clown juggling colored balls, a man in a gorilla suit, and six midgets drinking coca-cola. Rupert called after her, “Dearest, it is only for one night. And the lion has no teeth!”
I came up with these two examples off the top of my head. The first could be from a generic fantasy milieu– the cloak, sword, and use of horses sets this up. It is set in a winter setting. One of the characters is royalty and the two characters could be running from something and trying to find shelter. In the second story, the cloche hat was a type of hat worn in the 1920’s. A clown, the gorilla suit, and the midgets all give the idea that perhaps this is set at a circus. The details can set the story without explicitly stating the situation. If I were to write about different establishments and call one a pub and another a saloon, it would get across with those two words that one might be in England and the other in the American west.
I like to write poetry to practice this type of careful word choice. In poetry the words have to convey multiple meanings, have muscle enough to evoke the essence of what the poem is about, and there is no room for extraneous words. As an exercise try to write three versions of a kitchen without explicitly describing the kitchen. For the first one write a poem that evokes the feeling of a kitchen at night. For the second one write the start of a story about two male college flat-mates who are having girls over for dinner. For the third one write the start of a story about a woman who is in culinary school and wishes to be a chef. See how tightly you can write these three versions of a kitchen. All three should be very different. Before you write think about what details would distinguish these three kitchens.
Well-chosen details and the right words can carry description without giving too many words for the reader to trip over.