Description is one of the elements that a story can be broken down into. (I mentioned the other three last time: dialogue, narrative and exposition)
For me, description is a very hard subject to tackle. I always find myself in the middle of the two extremes, too much and too little. Description should be used not to pad, but rather to create a setting for the reader to imagine. Now you often hear the advice that you shouldn’t underestimate readers and explain everything in extreme detail – the same goes for description. It should supply enough information for a reader to imagine the place where the character is, but – perhaps most importantly – it should be seen through a character’s eyes.
To this day, the best description advice I have read comes from Holly Lisle, “Only describe what is different.” And to further enhance that that, describe only what is different for the current POV character.
Another use for description, thus making it part of the onward-moving story, is to characterise. You can do this most effectively by describing the same setting through the eyes of more than one character. One sees friendly people and lively atmosphere, another sees constricting masses and fake smiles. This is one of the most powerful ways to show the reader who your character is and how he sees the world.
In Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction, I’ve learned a lot about setting as well, and much of it can be incorporated in description. If your POV character is a long inhabitant of a town, instead of showing readers the white walls or the red roofs, show them the things that new visitors would miss. Show them the dark mark on the pavement where the blood had fallen when Mrs Smith was killed last summer. Tell them that it doesn’t wash off. Show them crater where all the kids hang out when it rains.
Description is as much about character as it is about setting. Everything your character sees is seen through a lens that is his disposition about the place. It is that lens that makes his view unique and your story interesting.
Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with anything? Feel free to comment.