Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Writing Better Descriptions

Through the art of description, we can make our scenes—and our characters—come to life for the reader. We writers become painters who help the reader form an image in her mind.

There are many sites offering advice on how to tackle descriptions in fiction writing. Many of the same techniques are shared from one writer to another. For this blog post, I have researched several sources and put together a list of description must-haves.

I hope the following advice helps you.

Try to include as many of the five senses as possible—and sometimes the sixth!

I'll always remember when I was a freshman in college and my English teacher handed back our first corrected essay. She took me aside and told me she'd like to give me extra writing assignments so I could make the most of my potential. The first assignment was a description. In it, I had to include all five senses. I described the bumpy, muddy field in front of my house where I had to park my car every night.

It was a fun exercise, and though I now look at it and think the description was a bit forced, I still believe it taught me a valuable lesson: we experience the world around us with all of our senses—and so should our readers.

This doesn't mean you have to force in all five senses in every single description. Simply use the relevant ones to your advantage. The scene will then come to life for the reader.

Darcy Pattison offers a terrific example of this exercise. She gives the example of wanting to write a scene in which her heroine enters a cave. To accomplish a vivid description, she first jots down all five senses and then imagines what details she can capture with each. Once her list is clear in her mind, she can begin to put the details together to create a description. Click on her name to see her example on the Women on Words website.

Let's make our own list. Here’s the image I’ve chosen. I love this series of photographs. You can see more fallen Disney princesses by Dina Goldstein here.

Let’s take a close look at the picture. I’m going to imagine I’m Snow White, so I’ll give examples of what she might perceive in this situation.

See: the mess of chips on the floor, toys strewn in front of the fireplace, the polo game on TV, Prince (not-so) Charming sprawled on the chair not lifting a finger to help.

Hear: the TV blaring, the baby bawling, my oldest girl asking me for a snack, the crunch-crunch of potato chips, the unbearable “mmm-aaahhh” noise Prince (not-so) Charming makes each time he takes a swig of beer.

Smell: dirty diapers, dog breath, salty potato chips, baby lotion.

Feel: someone tugging on my dress, the dirt and sand clumps in the carpet under my feet, sticky fingers grabbing my arm.

Taste: the rancid taste of nicotine lingering on my tongue from my last cigarette break (I’m being creative, here!).

Once you have a list of items, you can put them together to make the scene come to life. Why not try it out with this picture, or choose any other picture you like and give it a go?

Observe the world around you

If you need to describe the countryside, what better way to get inspired than going for a walk by some fields? Take a small journal with you so you can jot down whatever you see, hear, smell, feel—or even taste! You might be in for a surprise. I was recently out stargazing in the country with a friend. She not only managed to see the night sky, sense the cool breeze on her face and hear the intermittent chirping of the night birds, but she was so lucky she even tasted one very plump mosquito!

But what if you can't physically observe the place you want to describe? What if it's an imaginary planet or vehicle? Then be prepared to use your imagination even more. Lie or sit in a calm place and close your eyes. Imagine yourself in that place. Ask yourself questions. What can you see? How do you feel? Is it cold, warm? Are there any noises? Does anything immediately attract your attention?

Having a minirecorder is a good idea for these sessions (many phones have integrated recorders), so you don't interrupt the flow of ideas while searching for pen and paper.

If you need to describe people, a walk around town can give you many ideas. Even while waiting in line at the supermarket, you can observe the people around you and make mental notes on build, facial details and clothing.

What other ways are there to observe the world around you without leaving the comfort of your home? There’s television, of course, as well as the Internet, magazines… All these resources are just waiting for you to use them to your advantage. You just have to be able to look at them with a discerning eye.

Be specific

Being specific brings your world all the more to life.

Darcy Pattison also comments on specificity in her description building exercise. She compares a poor visual detail ("a dog") to a better one ("a pit bull"). With specific nouns, you can also find more specific—and thus more interesting—modifiers. As an example, Darcy compares “a scary dog” to “a scarred pit bull that limped”.

Being specific not only applies to nouns; just as when we’re writing action, specific verbs help bring a description to life. Darcy compares the flat “water fell onto my head” to the more vivid “water plopped onto my head”.

For a great example of the narrative potential behind specific action verbs, check out this article: Write Better Instantly? Use Power Verbs.

So, when describing a table all set for a romantic dinner, don't just say:

"There was a bottle of wine."

Be specific:

"Mark noticed an unopened bottle of Pinot Noir next to the candles."

You can also use specificity to your advantage to highlight a character or situation trait:

"Mark noticed an unopened bottle of Pinot Noir next to the candles. He wrinkled his nose. Red wine with fish? Sarah sure had a lot to learn..."

Target the description

Some readers enjoy long passages of description, others don't. A description just for the sake of it might sound interesting from the writer's point of view (as a challenge, or just plain fun), but not so much from the point of view of the reader.

To keep the narrative to-the-point, a description should help do at least one of two things:

1) Move the story forward.

2) Reveal something about the characters, the place or the story itself.

In the example above, the wine reveals something about the point of view character, Mark, as well as the hostess Sarah. Through a couple simple sentences we can begin to imagine her tastes, her knowledge of wine, and we can even work our way up to more distant character traits—did she have to make a great effort to buy this bottle? Is the cost irrelevant to her?

If you dedicate a lot of words to describe one specific element in a scene, make sure the element is relevant to the story in some way. You’re focusing the reader’s attention on it for a reason, right?

I can’t help thinking of those 90s computer games like King's Quest and Space Quest. The settings were static—if anything popped out (drawn with more vivid colors), that meant the character could interact with it.

Another example which immediately springs to mind is Dragon Ball: whenever Goku was in the middle of the mountainous desert fighting some villain bent on destroying the world, you could always tell which rock would be the next to blow. ;-)

That's called drawing the public's attention. Descriptions should serve a similar function.

If you're deep in a character's point of view, why not include their perception of the world around them? Focus on the descriptive points which call their attention most.

Here’s a short example:

Mark came up to me, his chubby moist hand outstretched. The stench of sweat and mothballs wafted uninvited up to my nose. I cringed as he clasped his fingers around my hand and shook. A dark layer of grime tinged his fingernails brown. His tiny, piggish eyes glimmered with excitement I couldn’t reciprocate.

Final advice


Don't just leave descriptions for when you're trying to add words to your story.

It's a good idea to take a small notepad along with you so you can write down any sudden flashes of description: an interesting person you see in line for coffee, a building you walk by which is just right for your character's city...

Opportunities come when you least expect them, and the chance to grab a good description is no less!

Reference sources:

How to Write a Description – Department of English, Northern Illinois University


  1. Great sensory descriptions here. I took an online creative writing class last year and they listed 3 other senses: sense of time, sense of space, and sense of the unknown.

    Great reminders anyway! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Diane! Oooh, that's also great advice! Thanks for commenting and sharing.


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