Of course, you can’t. Description gives a situation context. It locates your characters and story in a time and place. If you want it can describe the mood, what those characters are wearing, how they feel. It’s the typical scenario for the omniscient, third-person narrator. ‘He fumed. His eyes glared and he felt the buttons on his shirt would rip off as the rage raced through his body.’ The narrator does all the work, all the heavy lifting, so the reader can follow blindly and effortlessly.
But to me that it like going to the theatre and seeing actors tucked safely away within the proscenium arch, on the stage but remote from us. How much better to have a thrust stage, like at the Globe or theatre in the round where the actors are among you almost. You get sucked in and deeply involved.
One way, and perhaps the easiest way, is to let the dialogue do much of the work for you. In the sample Off to church there is no descriptive text, it is all dialogue. And yet, from the first words, we have a phrase that automatically gives us a context. The repetition of the phrase tells us it is practice and then we learn it’s the man talking to himself. No one has told us that Arthur Smethwick is trying to get the phrase right for his wedding, or that he has a sense of humour, it’s all there in the words. In our heads we are probably already putting him in front of a mirror while he prepares.
The second voice gives him an affectionate, abbreviated name and implies a need to hurry. His response let’s us know he is talking to his prospective wife. The reader has to decide what the question means. Is it his worry or a concern for her?
The conversation builds to give the impression of a couple deeply in love with a good line in banter where he happily plays the role of the managed partner.
Of course there is more, but you as the reader subconsciously pick and choose the way in which you read and engage with the text.
It’s an amazing and easy way to keep a story flowing without having to issue instructions and guides to the reader. It’s amazing because the flow of the conversation and relationship is not interrupted. It’s easy because we have these conversations all the time. We don’t need to break up a chat with a friend to fill in details or feelings because we naturally build them in.
One word of warning. If it goes on too long there is a danger that the reader will confuse who is talking, you need to sneak in a name or clue to who is talking or who is being addressed. You don’t need to be too blatant as we are figuring these things out for ourselves all the time and it needs to be less frequent if they have clearly different voices and personalities.
However, used wisely and initially sparingly, it can be the perfect way to start a piece of longer writing. Your reader will be building mental images of your characters from the very beginning, they will be hooked.