One of the pitfalls of generous description is sentimentality and melodrama. The more you love your characters, the more you must watch out for overblown descriptions. Oh, how tempting it is to wring our damp hands when our beloved characters are suffering!
Our personal feelings about our characters' plights are directly related to the number of modifiers we use. Mr. Smith becomes "lonely old Mr. Smith"; a drowned mouse becomes a "poor little mouse"; a virtuous young boy becomes a "sincere young sprite with clear blue eyes." Consider the following description of a man reaching the summit of a mountain:
He wiped the beads of sweat from his feverish brow, hoisted himself over the last, excruciating outcropping, and gasped victoriously at the triumph of nature that lay before him in all its dewy beauty. A magnificent blue sky hung silently above him, velvety blue valleys lay below him, and all around him the snow-capped peaks gleamed in the sun. He sat down, exhausted and happy, as the sweet blue tundra flowers danced with vicarious joy.
All right, already! the readers cry. You want to moveyour readers, not steamroll them. Note the number of adjectives and adverbs here: "feverish"; "victoriously"; "last, excruciating"; "dewy"; "magnificent blue"; "silently"; and on and on. Over ten modifiers within three sentences. To compound the problem, the modifiers are ordinary words used in the ordinary way. Where are the surprises in this passage, the fresh turns of phrase? Remedy Number One: Edit your adverbs, count your adjectives.
Compounding the problem of too many modifiers is the use of cliche: "fevered brow"; "triumph of nature"; "blue valleys"; "snowcapped peaks." These hackneyed phrases add nothing new to the readers' perceptions and serve to make the prose embarrassingly sentimental. Remedy Number Two: Avoid cliche.
Next, note the use of the pathetic fallacy in the last line. Pathetic fallacy is a term that describes the bad habit of ascribing human emotions or qualities to nature or inanimate objects. Those tundra flowers can no more feel vicarious joy than they can fry an egg. Sometimes the pathetic fallacy can be used effectively:
The house was obscured by a fence of cruel spikes.
The orchard trees, bowed and halfhearted, had been twisted into submission by Mr. Abel's hacksaw.
Images like these can work as metaphors in the appropriate story. But when you resort to grateful daisies or happy hydrangeas you've probably crossed the line. Remedy Number Three: Avoid the pathetic fallacy.
A writer's style is not immutable; style often changes to suit a given story. Although certain writers can be said to have a "practical" style and others a "lyrical" style, individual novels and stories by the same writer will demonstrate his or her so-called style to varying degrees. Even the most famous stylists vary their prose depending on the story at hand. Certain stories by James Joyce are more "Joycean" than others, for example. Ann Beattie is more "Beattian" in Falling in Place than she is in Picturing Will. Style evolves as much from the creation as it does from the creator.
Sometimes descriptive style matches the content of a story, and sometimes style and content contrast. Either way, the descriptive style can enrich the story you want to tell. Plain prose and simple constructions may reinforce the theme of simplicity you want in a story about a cloistered nun; a more lyrical style, on the other hand, may suggest the complexity of the nun's inner life. Wait until you have a few drafts on paper before you make a final decision. Style evolves over the course of many drafts, and you should allow it to change as you come to know your characters better.
Certain descriptive styles come in and out of vogue, and it's hard to resist their pull. Minimalism, which came into fashion during the seventies with the stories of Raymond Carver, made a big splash and was copiously imitated. Poorly executed minimalist stories have a dull, monochromatic feel that comes from a style that is intended to be simple but comes out simply flat. Minimalism requires exquisite telling detail and an inherently interesting situation.
As a backlash against the ubiquitous minimalism, stories are now getting bigger, sprawlier, and more lushly described. Big, multi-parted stories require stylistic unity in order to feel whole. A strong stylistic focus, a central image, a strong setting, or an unusual first-person narrator are stylistic techniques that can help you shape an overgrown story.
Maximalism, like minimalism, is a trend. Fiction fashions come and go, and the only way to survive these waves is to ignore them. Write your stories however they demand to be written—in vogue or out.
One descriptive style that is never in vogue, however, is sentimentality and melodrama. You can avoid this snakepit by scrupulously editing your prose. Measure your modifiers to avoid overwriting; weed out all cliches; and never commit the pathetic fallacy, which is ascribing human emotions to natural phenomena or inanimate objects.
Descriptive style profoundly shapes your readers' experience. Style is not a set of authorial quirks! It is a set of deliberate decisions, made over a series of drafts, that becomes an integral part of the story's impact.
Description of setting is probably what Elmore Leonard meant when he said (possibly apocryphally), "I try not to write the parts people skip." It is true that pages-long accounts of the vineyards of France or the houses of San Francisco or the mustard fields of Virginia or the streets of Greenwich Village have the dangerous potential to put readers to sleep, but only if the description seems like an afterthought, or a writer's self-indulgence. When you take care to make a description of setting integral to the story—that is, if it sets a tone or mood, foreshadows future events, or suggests the characters' motives or desires—then you will be able to keep your readers engaged.