So what, you ask, is relationship-based description?
Pull up a chair, friends, and let's explore this concept.
In every scene, you'll have a point-of-view character, whether that's your book's protagonist or somebody else. You'll have a point-of-view character even if you're writing in third person—and in general, the more dialed-in to that POV character you are, the more invested your reader will be in the scene, too. (This is true for everything except 3rd-person omniscient narratives, but I'll make a sweeping generalization and say that in most genres, close 3rd-person is much, much more effective.)
In the best descriptive writing, all of the observation and description in the scene is filtered through the POV character's worldview. This means that what they notice at any given moment will be influenced by everything from their background, lifestyle, and childhood experiences, to their current occupation, current mood, and current goal.
Everyone in a scene will react to stimuli differently, just as we do in real life; for example, as a musician, I notice very different things when I'm sitting through an amateur musical performance than one of my friends, who doesn't have musical training, does. Likewise, as a mom, when I'm out with my daughter I notice things differently than I did before she came along—I'm much more attuned to how situations could become dangerous (don't run out into the road! Don't touch the hot stove!) and also tend to notice things that are at waist-level and below much more than I used to. And I could go on; for all the different aspects of who I am (writer, disabled person, etc.), there are ways that that identity affects the way I process things around me.
Keeping these character-specific filters in mind boosts both the punch of your descriptions and the depth of your characterizations, making it doubly awesome.
Recently I read Julie Berry's THE PASSION OF DOLSSA (which I highly recommend), and couldn't help but mark this beautiful passage, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about:
Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozets with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom... Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.
In these few lines, we're given insight into so many things: how the narrator feels about the girl she's describing, how the girl treats her suitors (isn't that line about crushing them on the roof of her mouth absolutely perfect?), what role the grape-harvest/winemaking plays in the culture of their village. Berry could have just written something like this:
Astruga was a good-looking but shameless hussy who moved from boy to boy and then left them, flaunting her attractive body to reel them in one after another.We'd still have had all the pertinent information about the character in question. But the way it's presented now, we have so much more than that—we're pulled deeper into the world, deeper into the head of the POV character, and deeper into the author's lush and beautiful voice, all at once.
In my original draft of this post, I had two original examples written out to show how this sort of relationship-based description can be used to convey a character's mood and backstory. Unfortunately, my computer rudely ate it, and I was never able to remember what those examples said well enough to rewrite them (doggone it! I was really mad!). For more examples, though, I highly recommend checking out this post by the inimitable Maggie Stiefvater, in which she talks about using literary devices to tweak reader emotions and breaks down some great examples of relationship-based description from The Dream Thieves.
So, lovely readers, here's your challenge for today, if you choose to accept it! Choose a character, a setting, or an object that you'd like to describe, and also choose a relationship (between two characters, between a character and himself, between a character and an object or setting) that you'd like to highlight. If needed, make a brief list of ways that that relationship might affect the way your POV character sees the thing/person/place you're trying to describe. Then get out your pen and write a paragraph (or more!), choosing your descriptive words carefully, putting yourself as deeply as you can into the viewpoint of your POV character.
Alternatively, if you'd like to practice but you're having trouble coming up with something to use, here's a prompt: Pick one setting and one relationship from the following lists, put them together in some descriptive writing, and see what you can come up with!
A moss-covered forest
A crowded suburban Super Target
A mountain trail
A high school hallway
An urban backyard patio
A character who's about to break up with his/her significant other
A character who's about to propose
A character who resents his/her mother
A character who's obsessed with a specific possession
A character who's got PTSD after a bad car accident
A character who feels inadequate at everything he/she tries