What types of description do you think are needed in novels, and what do readers just skip over? Do readers like to know she has brown eyes and a dimple?
My take on needed description is “not much,” mostly because readers like to imagine their own characters and will overrule your descriptions if they get in the way.
Another reason is that I’m a bear about PoV and the only way a PoV character can describe herself is by looking in a mirror (NEVER DO THAT) which is completely unnatural. (Think about the last time you looked in a mirror; did you describe yourself? No. The last time I looked in a mirror, I thought, Who is that old woman and why is she wearing my pajamas?).
Another reason is that if we’re interacting with somebody in real life, we get impressions, we don’t stop to do inventories because that takes time, and the long pause and the staring will cause comment. So if a first person or third limited PoV character goes on for a paragraph about what somebody looks like, unless she has a good reason–she’s a detective analyzing a suspect, for example–she’s going to notice only a few telling details (telling to her and the story) and move on.
So what description can you use?
The big determiner is that “telling detail” bit, as in “What descriptive details are absolutely crucial to telling this story?” Readers need time and place to anchor the story, but they don’t need granular details of the setting, just enough that the characters aren’t walking through white space like Coraline. They also need to know enough about what the characters look like to personalize them, which is usually not hair and eye color unless the hair is blue. And you have to remember that whatever the PoV character notices is because of who they are, not who the other person is; we notice the details that are important to us, we don’t take general inventories.
For example, when I was writing Maybe This Time, I didn’t spend much time on Andie or North because what they looked like didn’t matter. What mattered were the details they noticed seeing each other for the first time after ten years, how they’d changed and how they hadn’t, how that hit them. I don’t remember what Andie looked like except that she had her hair pulled back and North didn’t like it; I remember that North looked tired and that made Andie catch a little. I couldn’t tell you Andie’s hair or eye color now to save me. But the little girl Alice had to be ghostly pale because I wanted the subtext that she was slowly turning into a ghost herself, that the supernatural was taking her, and that Andie’s fight would be taking her back. So Alice had pale skin, and pale blue eyes, and white-blonde hair to underscore that.
Nita’s description is pure plot: it needs to be there so Nick can look at her and see that she’s familiar, and then later see her father and realize why she’s familiar; that realization is a huge turning point, so I needed to mention several descriptive aspects that she shared with her dad. Nick’s description when Nita looks at him is only important because it’s fake; that is, he looks the way he thinks he used to look, but it’s been a long time and he’s forgotten, so he remembers himself as taller with ears that don’t stick out, and he’s left out his widow’s peak. As he’s poisoned and becomes alive again, he gets shorter, his ears stick out, and the widow’s peak comes back. It doesn’t matter that Nick has a widow’s peak; it matters that when it comes back, it’s a clue that he’s alive again. In the same way, it doesn’t matter that Mort has blue eyes and Nita has black until they tell Button they’re twins; now it’s a plot point that sets up a question for the future, the answer to which is crucial for the plot.
In those cases, the description is integral to the plot so the reader will use it in her understanding of the story; she’ll know subconsciously that it’s important. Anything else, the reader will probably forget (it’s not important) or discard (it’s annoying). In Manhunting, I gave Jake a mustache (god knows why) and I got several letters saying, “In my book, Jake has no mustache.” That works for me, and it was easy for readers, too, because after I gave him the mustache in the beginning, I never mentioned it again. It wasn’t important to the story. That’s dumb description.
It’s the same in setting, too: if you’ve decided to describe a rainy street at night, you can figure that the reader will know that the street is slick and neon reflects off the puddles; everybody knows that. But they won’t know that the street is cobblestone unless you tell them. And there’s no need to tell them unless the cobblestones come into play in some way, like they slow people down or somebody trips because cobblestone is hard to walk on. A few vivid, telling details that the PoV character notices for a reason are much more effective than long paragraphs of description going into every facet of the scene or person. That’s the part people skim.
Put another way, the fact that I have brown eyes has never meant a damn bit of difference to my life. The fact that Paul Newman had blue eyes made a big difference to his life. If you’re writing my story, you can skip the eyes. If you’re writing Newman’s, you’re gonna have to mention those telling blues.
I get annoyed when two-thirds of the way through, the heroine’s blonde hair or green eyes are mentioned, contradicting whatever I’d sketched in. I’d far rather such things were made clear at the start.
This is important for exactly the reason Jane gives; it throws the reader out of the story. If you’ve got a specific description that’s going to come up later in the story, foreshadow it, preferably in the first ten pages or so (readers start building their character ideas right off the bat as they build the movie in their heads). For Nita, I got the black helmet hair and pointy eyebrows in with Button, enough to give the reader a general idea although Button’s comment still seems awkward, but I had to wait until the third scene to get Nita’s description of Nick, and that’s too far in, about thirty pages. The best I could do was give Mort a line in the car about the Devil in the bar being talk, dark, and scary.
Addendum: I was thinking about this post and remembered a story a friend of mine, a romance writer, told me about how she met her husband. You’d think it’d be romantic, and I’m sure the actual date was, but the story she tells is that he’d ask a friend to fix him up, and the friend said he had two possibilities, a blonde and a brunette. The future significant other said, “The blonde” (of course) and went on the date, which did not work out. Then he said, “Okay, the brunette,” and they’ve been together for decades. What does that tell you about my friend, aside from the fact that she has dark hair and a great sense of humor? Nothing. What does it tell you about her future husband back then? He was a guy. (What is it with blondes, anyway?). What does it tell you about hair color? Aside from cultural biases, it doesn’t matter.
And now that I think of it, another good friend of mine who’s a romance writer was dating a great guy, went home to meet his family and met his identical twin, and married the twin. They also have been together for decades (I think she can tell them apart now), so whatever detail it was that made her say, “Him, not him,” it wasn’t description.