Description plays a big role in worldbuilding, but the role it plays can be different depending on genre. Does your description indicate a technology level? (SF) Does it leave a clue? (Mystery) Does it suggest a state of mind? (Literary) Or does it do all three?
Does your description satisfy reader expectations which are heavily influenced by genre? A reader coming in believing s/he is going to find one thing may be confused by another, and end up not engaging with the book.
For one thing, the interpretation of metaphor varies widely across genres. If someone "fades into the wallpaper" in a mainstream book, it's metaphorical. But in a science fiction or fantasy book, it could be literal!
Is your description setting up a particular type of expectation, like that of a medieval setting? If your setting doesn't match that expectation, you need to take steps to defeat it as soon as possible. This is why I always mention electricity early on in a Varin story. Otherwise, people fasten onto other cues in the description and get confused.
Character expectations are a good way to get readers to set their own expectations correctly. Morgan spoke about having a character who is accustomed to wood and brick buildings without plumbing suddenly encounter a room in the upper town with a marble bath and plumbing. Readers might find such things unremarkable, but the character can teach them to find them remarkable.
Point of View is absolutely critical in helping to determine how something should be described. An outsider, stranger, or traveler is a really great point of view to use to allow you as a writer to describe and explain things that insiders would not notice. You can have a point of view character experience the bizarre as normal, or the normal as bizarre. Setting up what the POV character perceives as normal is an important step in starting a story, because it allows strange events to attain their proper resonance. Jumping straight into action isn't always the right idea, especially in a world very foreign to the reader. In secondary worlds, relying on the reader's perception of what is normal can cause descriptions to fall flat or seem inexplicable.
Genre readers expect to geek out over different things. Science fiction and steampunk readers often love their gadgets. Romance, historical, and steampunk readers love to geek out over details of clothing. Some genres feature lengthy fight scenes, either person-to-person or ship-to-ship (on the sea or in space!). Some genres consider descriptions of furniture, or of food, to be very important.
Noticing is a critically important phenomenon. If an author describes something, that generally means that the character has perceived it. They may also have noticed its presence. They may not understand its significance, however. Glenda brought up the general rule that if the character doesn't have some reason to notice something in his/her surroundings, the author shouldn't describe it. However, seeing something and not understanding its purpose or significance can be done well. Say the character sees a key; they can potentially misunderstand it as the key to the desk drawer rather than to a safe deposit box. Someone can look for X on the desk, and move Y out of the way... and Y becomes important later.
I described an exercise I experienced in a class, where we were all asked to describe the professor doing something for about 30 seconds. Though all he did was bring a book in and set it on the desk, everyone there described it differently. Terms of address were different; how they described the book depended on how well they saw it and whether they had read it before; how they described the desk was similarly variable.
My thanks to everyone who attended!
Next week we will be joined by special guest Deborah J. Ross, who will be discussing the worldbuilding in her new trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. I hope you can join us!
Here's the video: