One way I've found is to treat the setting as if it were a character. Characters in stories have a purpose. They're included to act as foils for each other or as companions that reveal each other's contradictions or ambiguities. Setting can do the same things. Can you imagine Quasimodo hiding in a small wood framed church in the countryside? Isn't the imposing cathedral bell tower and teeming Paris of the late 1400's exactly what helps to make him and Esmeralda so memorable?
On a more modern note, Think how Louis Sachar's Holes would fall flat if those holes were in a lush water-surrounded landscape. Doesn't the desolate setting that the author describes add to the punishment that the delinquents suffer? I was thirsty the entire time I was reading that book and my thirst added to how much I empathized with those kids.
So how about rules for description? I'm not so good at following rules, but I love knowing them and I love being able to follow them because then I can break them real good.
Here are a few that I pay attention to while I'm thinking how to do things differently.
- Include specific and carefully observed detailed. Example: the tree v. the thick limbed oak
- Reveal the innermost workings of your character. Example: She was cold and walked quickly across the busy street. v. Head down, hands shoved inside her pockets, she dodged the cars that clogged the crosswalk.
- Try to include different senses in a scene and never too many: His face was red with anger. v. His face, red with anger and his breath coming in hard pants, he raised both fists.
- Don't turn purple. Leave "It was a horrendously evil sight" where it belongs--with Bulware Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night."
- Whenever possible kill the adverbs. They lead to lazy, unimaginative writing. Example: He carefully unlocked the door. v. He turned the key in the lock, but stopped with his ear pressed against the door before he inched it open.
I'm sure you have some other ideas about description. If you have some tips, please leave them in a comment. I love to know what you do and I'm sure there are others who stop by who will also appreciate your insights.