Excellent descriptions involve action
Typically, the type of description we think of is telling what something looks like. The problem with this in fiction is that it stops the forward motion of the story. Imagine a movie that introduces each new character by freeze-framing the motion, focusing in on the character, and a narrator’s voice gives all of the details about him. That would get annoying quickly, wouldn’t it?
It’s not quite as obvious in writing as in a movie, but readers still notice it. They use words like, “It was kind of slow at parts,” or “I skimmed over some sections,” or “It wasn’t as exciting as I was expecting.”
Let’s compare some examples:
EXAMPLE 1 – The baker ushered us into the back room for the meeting. The rotund man wore a stained white apron. His pale blue eyes sat above a wide nose, and his thinning brown hair was spotted with splotches of flour. He hated us, but the fear we inspired wouldn’t allow him to deny us our wishes.
EXAMPLE 2 – “Come in. Come in.” The baker’s terse words were anything but welcoming, but he waved a flour-covered hand towards the back door. His pale blue eyes glared at our small group as he wiped his hands on the stained white apron that barely covered his rotund mid-section. After a quick sneeze from his wide nose, he ran a shaking hand over his thinning brown hair, then followed us into the meeting.
The two examples give us the same type of information, but in different ways:
Description 1 has little action. As a matter of fact, it stops the movement of the story after the baker ushers them to the back in order to tell what the man looks like.
Description 2 shows the same as the first, but by using action. We not only see the baker’s movements, but those actions also give us his physical description and show his emotions.
You may not be able to get in a full, head-to-toe description this way, but it gives readers enough to paint the picture in their mind’s eye, and they fill in the details themselves. Overall, the second description gives more bang for its buck, so to speak, but most importantly, it becomes a part of the action instead of stopping the forward motion of the story.