How do I become better at descriptive writing?
Thanks for the A2A.
I'm going to advise you to consider using all of your 'senses' when writing a descriptive piece.
Raise your work above the mediocre with the use of all five senses.
Drawing on the senses will breathe life into your characters, setting and may even enhance the back story.
She wore a pretty blue dress.
Use the sense of sight: She wore a blue dress, the same one she had on the day we met.
The one that matched her eyes, showed her curves, and made my mouth go dry.
The male character above doesn't describe the dress, the pattern or style, but what he remembers about it, what it does to him when he sees it.
And we are swept along.
Sight is the cardinal sense.
Generally before you smell, hear or taste something, you see it.
When you're writing, don’t just see it, really see it.
The full moon rose slowly over the trees.
The full moon rose slowly over the trees blanketing the farm with its pale glow.
An old hound dog kept watch from the safety of the rickety porch, the sparkle of the wet grass reflected in his eyes.
Use comparison or contrast.
The moon rose slowly over the trees and rained down beams of light through the branches, like a mother ship searching for her workers.
Or add a unique detail that will deepen the POV (point of view).
The full moon rose slowly over the trees casting eerie shadows on the campsite.
It gave John the creeps and he edged closer to the fire.
The same moon rose on the night the three children went missing.
The world is not a quiet place.
Even in the still of the night you can hear the hum of the refrigerator or the ticking of a clock.
My cat snores.
Close your eyes and listen to the rustle of a candy bar being unwrapped or the sounds of birds at a feeder.
Then describe the sounds, not the action.
Use this newly discovered sensory information to enrich your story.
The room was noisy.
Marco sat alone at the table nearest the door so he wouldn't miss her.
The room was noisy.
The clank of heavy plates drifted from the kitchen and fought with the steady hum of couples in conversation.
Ice clinked as it settled in his water glass.
He ran his fingers over the drops of condensation and watched them make tracks down and onto the tablecloth.
His watch read 9:30.
She wasn't coming.
What does dripping water sound like? You wouldn't write drip, drip, drip.
Make your readers hear it.
You could use splat, or plonk, or plop.
How about rain? Listen the next time it rains.
You might be surprised to learn it sounds like bacon cooking.
Let your characters feel their surroundings through their skin and their bodies.
Loud music is felt all over.
It comes up through the floor, in through your feet and hammers in your chest.
Really loud music pulses in your ears.
A good writer would use all of those sensations to describe the scene.
He went for a swim in the cool pond.
The sudden plunge into the cool water took his breath away and raised goose bumps on his arms.
Kamir had been swimming in this pond since he was a kid.
Swirling his hand in the dark water, it still held the promise of boyhood laughter and summer bike rides.
(At this point I would also add how the woods and water smell, but that's the next item in this article.
Feelings can be non physical.
Her marriage felt like the beach after a storm; messy, tangled and trashy.
Smell is the sense that is most linked to memory.
A simple smell can take you back to grandma's house at holiday time, or back to your desk in grade school.
(For me, that would be the smell of coloring crayons.
"That stinks," said Seth, holding his hand over his nose.
"That stinks like rotten meat," said Seth, clamping his hand over his nose.
(Clamp was a stronger word for a stronger smell.
) He staggered back until he hit the wall.
"I'm going to be sick.
Stay away from 'nose wrinkling'.
It is way overdone in today's literature.
Also keep away from having your character "make a face".
Eyes squeezed shut, his face caved as though he were going to cry.
You can layer smells.
Let's go back to the swimming pond.
He took in a deep breath and smelled the damp earth, the kind worms loved, and rotted trees from the nearby woods.
That, along with the pungent bite of algae and slime in the water, an odor that stuck on your swimsuit long after it dried.
You can use the sense of smell to suggest mood.
The girl's willingness to commit a crime smelled like an opportunity to Clark.
Something smelled fishy but he went along with it anyway.
My personal favorite and the sense that gets the least use in fiction writing.
When you do get to use taste, don't rush it.
The cake tasted good.
(You can't get much more boring than that sentence.
The sweet butter cream icing melted on my tongue.
The word delightful came to mind.
I closed my eyes to savor the richness of the warm spice cake and knew I would have a second piece before the end of the night.
Your characters don't eat or drink very often, so use taste to suggest other things.
Winter has always tasted like hot chocolate to me.
Her kisses tasted like strawberries in the sun.
Taken from my book Write Better Right Now, available on Amazon.
Below are 3 TRICKS TO IMPROVE DESCRIPTIVE WRITING
Describing a scene is not just a mere description of the objects, windows, doors and people in it but also, the gravity of whatever situation the scene is set in.
Each scene is different from the previous and the following one as it might have various elements, objects and emotions behind those characters in the plot.
Description is best when you describe the general setting of a scene and then compare the things that matter with something that explains the setting and gives a clear picture in the reader’s mind as to what it is.
For example, you entered your room and you found the bed in front of you on which you decided to lie down immediately as you were tired.
This same scene can be described as –
I entered the room and it seemed like a trance; like I had ventured into a world which I had known before but it was all changed.
The usual darkness in the room was being disturbed by the playful rays of the sun, venturing into the abyss in the room to give way to a cone of light that was only illuminating the dust particles in the room.
My eyes met the bed and I remembered how tired I was.
I flung my arms out as if I was a bird preparing for my first flight and let myself go free the moment I felt the soft mattress embrace my body only to find deep slumber waiting for me with a smile on its face.
It’s all comparison of your abstract thoughts and ideas to the message you wish to convey from a particular scene and projecting them to give the reader a clear picture of the same.
Hope this helps.
Pick your moments.
You have to learn where the best places for description belong, and take advantage of those moments.
Then there’s the matter of how.
Most novice writers don’t go deep enough and may use too many clichés in their descriptions, like ‘her hair fell like a waterfall down her back.
’ That may be accurate, but do try to make word choices that tell us more about the character rather than a direct and overused description.
‘Her hair had been braided with a perfect geometric progression, thick at the nape of her neck and tiny and fine down to the tips, which had been cut straight.
The ‘how’ of descriptions interacts closely with the ‘when’ of descriptions.
If there’s dialogue, I’ll use active descriptions to move things along and to give the characters a sense of life.
Even if they’re all stuck at a dinner table, I’ll have the characters feeding the dog under the table, or pinching the ass of the server, or passing notes, or tearing up a napkin because they’re nervous.
If there’s action, I try not to get too technical.
Most readers don’t care that much about the choreography except for the highlights.
What they want is the FEELS.
If I’ve pulled back with the narrative (sometimes you have to tell instead of show, otherwise we’ll have to sit through every hour of every day) I try to make it as interesting and close to the character as possible.
Rather than ‘they traveled for days until the horse went lame,’ maybe ‘the horse began to lurch whenever his weight came down on the fore right, so Amy slipped off the saddle and led him, but by the third day that wasn’t enough.
As the horse drew to a painful stop, mouth tight, back hunched, Amy knew she had to stop, or she had to leave him behind to fend for himself, or more likely, lay down and die alone.
Remember, always use the character’s personality, opinions, and all their senses (don’t forget sense of balance or awareness of where the body is in space from time to time).
Avoid clichés, not because there’s anything wrong with them but because they’re generic – every cliché is a missed opportunity to reveal something unique about your character.
And don’t forget to look for opportunities to use action in place of ‘he said’ (though you may want to be careful not to go too far if the dialogue needs to race along.
I hope this helps!
The greatest single secret to descriptive writing, in my opinion, is learning to find “the telling detail.
Sure, I could go on for two screens telling you how to draw in the five senses and paint mood into description and find the balance between rich world-building and leaving the reader room to fill-in the details with their own imagination.
All good stuff.
But really…first…find the telling detail.
If you walk through a door with a sign that says “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.
” you have a pretty good idea what’s on the other side.
And if the door is aluminum with broken glass, or clothed in sea salt rotted window screen, you pretty much know the rest.
A major mistake I see in critique is scenes that describe in intricate, immaculate, sometimes gorgeous prose, details that are redundant and do not further the story.
In “Dreams of the Rocket Men” (Analog, September 2016), I describe Mr.
Coanda’s house like this:
Daddy turned off the highway a bit early and wound through the trees and up to a dark, cedar house like those where I imagined park rangers might live.
The effect was completed by unkempt flowerbeds lined with rocks and animal skulls, and feeders ringed by moldering seed husks.
Daddy had paid Mr.
Coanda to make or repair some part for our garden tractor, and he walked us around the house, through a gate secured with a loop of steel wire, and out to the unpainted barn where Mr.
Coanda was working.
While the two men talked, my brother and I stared into the barn's shadowed recesses, where strange and fancy machines of unimaginable purpose stood sentry over countless dusty and forgotten-looking rocket parts.
There were nose cones and tail fins and funnel-shaped nozzles, and even the odd bit of electronic gear.
This is almost narrative impressionism—what a boy sees in a glance.
I’m not describing the house (what does it look like?) but the owner: widowed, retired, a putterer.
Genial (a park ranger).
In a barn.
Full of rocket parts.
Description can be far more lush, and quite a bit more terse.
Which you use will affect not only pacing and emotional impact.
Often, your description of one thing has more to say about something else, and you should always keep that in mind when selecting details and the words you use to describe them.
For the record, here is the only direct description I give of Mr.
Coanda, while he’s standing in the boy’s shared bedroom:
His blue eyes, in that moment, were a young boy's eyes, like lights on Christmas morning.
The crags and valleys of his withered cheeks shone all the deeper beneath them.
The telling detail here, is neither the eyes nor the crags, but the contrast between the two.
I'm going against the grain here and advising the opposite of everyone else.
Don't overdo it.
I can tell you this because I lean towards the wordy.
A few years ago, I read a great piece of writing advice that successfully made the point, 'Extra words aren't always necessary.
It gave an example of an action scene with two men in a large sewer.
One of the men slips and the other man has to rescue him.
Many writers might say he "thrust out his right hand for his friend.
Per the article, you don't have to say "for his friend.
" Who else is down there? Readers are smart enough to infer he reached for his friend so there is no need to tell them.
Also, why specify his "right" hand? Most readers will assume he used his dominant hand, whether it is right or left.
Unless the scene requires it to be his right hand (right hand dominant, but injured – caused excruciating pain?) just say "hand.
The same is true when describing the environment of your story.
Grass is usually green so there is no need to mention the color unless the grass is another color, or all surrounding grass is damaged by drought and your grass is green.
Forget the color of the grass and focus on a different aspect.
Too many descriptive details and the brain gets full.
Strive for balance.
Thank you for the A2A.
Description is the foundation upon which to practise what it is you want to say within your writing.
If you want voice, if you have something to say to the world and writing it is your choice of medium, then it is the act of description which is your main tool.
If you have a point of view on some topic, regardless what it is: Environment, Education, Abortion or Freedom, the key to reflecting your point of view, without becoming pontifical, would be accomplished with Description.
You also need to decide, when writing, what basic forms and devices you will plan to use to bring across your views.
Will the material be fiction or nonfiction – what genre will you choose – what will the length be — etc.
Look at the environment – as an example.
Your description will be in what the rivers and sky are like now and maybe compare it to what you recall rivers and sky was like when you were young.
Description will avail you of arguing in favor of your point of view without preachiness, and if you use description in an appropriate way, you will convince a reader of your point of view without having to outright state what your point of view really is.
This is why description is important to be done correctly.
To focus on your question: Read! Learn how other writers used description to convey their point of view without actually being forthright with it.
Study words and how they are used to solicit particular emotions.
Get to know and understand symbols, including the meanings of colors and sounds.
I cover a lot of this in a textbook which I wrote, which is up on Amazon called: Creative Process for Writers: A Reference which is all about how to write literature and literature is mostly achieved via the way description is used.
Keep it simple.
There’s no great drama in a “dark and stormy night” if the person is in a cozy, dry room.
You need only the critical details, and only what fits into the point of view of the story, sets the stage for the scene, and builds a mood for the story.
If you are writing a mystery, you will need to include the critical piece of evidence, but mention it along with two or three other things that might be clues but are “red herrings.
If you are writing in a close third point of view (he, she, it, they) but mostly from what one character knows and thinks, you can write a simple description, just to set the reader’s mental image in two or three sentences.
If you are writing in first person, don’t write a description, don’t put the person in front of a reflective surface unless the person’s comments on appearance bring the plot forward.
Imagine a Victorian woman describing seeing in the mirror how her maid is dressing her hair, and she is not pleased.
The description shows who the woman is more than it tells what she looks like, and it shows what an unpleasant person she is.
The best advice I can give you is to ensure that you give neither less, nor more description than your story requires.
To many writers give far too much description because either:
Neither of these is true.
What the reader requires is the minimum description necessary to convey the experience you want to give the reader.
So if you want to give the reader the feeling you get when drifting lazily down the Cherwell on a punt under the dappled summer sunlight through the weeping willow trees, then you may well need several pages of description to build that sensation.
Whereas it make take only a couple of lines to give the reader the sense of a crowded station platform.
The appropriate minimum for characters is probably even less; the more detail you give, the more you force the reader to create a detailed picture, which, for most people, is difficult and immersion breaking.
I wrote a detailed explanation of this for wikiHow which I adapted for my blog.
You can read it here:
Thanks for asking me.
You have received some excellent answers, particularly Jody's, so I'm going to tell you some things which may be counter-intuitive.
(Max Eagan has already started in that direction.
Avoid adjectives as much as possible.
If you're writing fiction, remember that description comes from point of view.
A grumpy hermit is not going to notice the same things in the scenery as an eight year old.
Take advantage of that to build characterization.
Avoid noticing what your point of view character wouldn't notice.
(If the old hermit lives off the land, she might notice where the lizards are thickest, with a view to harvesting.
The child might notice the same place with fascination that the lizards are so big.
Never stop in the middle of an action scene to describe the location.
Find a way to do it before, or sneak anything essential in.
Yes, here's where you may need an adjective or two.
Compensate with short sentences.
And I will emphasize a point Jody Lebel makes: description entails all the sense.
My writers group pointed out that I never describe visually unless reminded.
They found that a problem.
On the other hand, I had a scene in the dark, with plenty of description.
So figure out which of your senses you're neglecting and make sure to include some of that too.
Descriptive Writing is all about drawing your reader in.
One way to do this is to give them a sense of the world in your story.
For example, if your characters are in a beautiful park, describe what's beautiful (how the sun reflects off the water, green leaves wet with dew, etc.
Conversely, if its a run down park, let your reader know how that looks, sounds, smells.
Now… be sure not to go so far into description that it takes away from the forward action of your story.
If its a fight scene for example, your readers will care about the details of the scene most relevant to the character's experiences in that place.
Aim to strike a balance with description and you will have readers clamoring for more.
Hope that helps.
Peace & Happy Writing
Sometimes I think writers encounter these problems when writing a story because they don’t develop that particular writing “muscle” outside of writing the stories.
It’s like a weekend warrior syndrome – you don’t exercise all week, then hurt like hell after one jog or game of tennis on the weekend.
Take some time to regularly write about the face of a person, the sounds of a crowd, or the look and feel of a place without the pressure of putting it in the story and “getting it right.
If you can’t see it mentally, you can go out and observe it directly (called “people watching,” like at a cafe or a park), take a drive and spot a setting to park in and write, etc.
If it is inconvenient to do with a laptop or notebook, dictate a voice memo into your smartphone or a little recorder.
If you can’t get out to go to a setting, look up images and videos online.
Very convenient, if not quite as refreshing and sensory stimulating.
The nice thing about this exercise is, it doesn’t feel like work because there is no pressure.
It can brush the cobwebs of the brain away.
And, as a nice bonus, you may get some nice passages to plug into your story, ready to go, because you observed and experienced what you were looking for or can otherwise use.
As Johnny Five, the robot in the “Short Circuit” films said, “Must.
One little drill you can try is to take a national park photo, or tropical isle shot and observe it closely.
Any photo with much going on will do.
Begin writing single or pairs of words that describe things in the photo.
Try for as many words as you can for your lists.
The next thing is to match words to build sentence pieces.
Keep adding as many tack on words as you can, aiming for longest possible rational descriptions.
At some point you will find a sense of the things in common and your sentences will take hold in your mind.
Every time you do this drill, you will find it becomes easier thinking of good words and you can write short passages.
Eventually you get to whole paragraphs, and later, whole pages.
Your work will be rough at first but the practice of putting word matches together will pay off.
Describing will become entirely natural.
For improving your skills you’ll have to keep on writing a lot.
As you want to improve your skills to write physical descriptions, I’d suggest you start by exercising this method of description:
Take any object (or place of you are comfortable with that) and first try to describe it in one line, then in one sentence and then in 2 lines and then in one small para and then in one big para.
Then try to go all poetic with the descriptions which might seem absurd at first, but will greatly help you in understanding the ways in which 1 thing can be described.
This exercise helps a lot.
When you do this a dozen times then start used bigger objects and settings and try to be as descriptive as possible.
Then move on to people and then you move on to conversations followed by scenes.
Try and describe only the physicality's in these aspects.
let me know if you are specifically asking for character’s physical descriptions because then I might be help you more as I’m a fiction writer myself.
Writing is not just about scratching a few sentences on a piece of paper or typing some keys on your laptop.
It's so much more than the physical task of actually 'writing'! It's about BEING the character you are writing about.
It's about FEELING every bit of emotion that the character is going through.
It's drowning so deep into your story that your own reality feels unreal!!
Here are a few points that will help you in being more descriptive:
1) VISUALIZE : When you are writing about any particular scene, think of what you would observe if you were the protagonist.
The colors, the background, the fragrance, the movements in front of you.
Describe each of these experiences with vivid details and create magic that will surely translate to your readers!
2) FEEL: There's a reason why writers like to write at night.
You need the silence my friend! If you cannot quite feel the emotion you are describing on paper, you will never connect with your readers.
So, find your little 'zen-corner', shut yourself up in a closet if you have to, and THEN start describing any difficult emotion in your story/article.
You will see the difference & so will your readers!!
3) KNOW WHEN TO STOP: Like anything else, over-description can completely kill the mood and distract your readers from the story-line, thus making them lose patience! For instance, if you are describing how a field is open and green, don't go on for more than a sentence about the 'greenery' or the 'serenity'.
You can keep that for a poem!
The crux of the matter is that, just open each of your protagonist's five senses ( seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, even tasting if required!) while you are describing a scene.
That will do the trick!
This is going to be painful to hear.
Think about your character.
What is in the scene? Where? With who? Doing what? Why that way? How does it advance the plot?
Great, now we know that George is in the reading room.
He’s with his aunt’s lawyer’s legal assistant.
They are chatting, after he’s offered to grab her a drink.
He’s trying to pick up information about his aunt’s recent meeting with her boss.
Flesh needs to be draped over those bones.
George caught his breath now that he’d arrived.
He tried to catch his reflection in the mirrored glass display case protecting his aunt’s greatest literary prizes.
George needed to look presentable for Annabelle.
He’d heard her summoned to bring something to Barristan.
No one was normally allowed to interrupt the solicitor’s meeting with Aunt Kitty.
A chance to corner the uncommon information leak, even secondhand, was impossible to resist.
Alright, we’ve got the beginning of a scene.
You’ll note that there is more information from the skeleton that isn’t written into the expansion.
That’s because this is illustrative, not exhaustive.
You’d need to keep going for your own project.
The second piece is more interesting, no? I still think it’s terrible, but I think all my writing is terrible.
Now comes the time to add some muscle to the meat.
George breathlessly paused after entering the reading room.
He uselessly tried to prepare his looks by quickly catching his reflection in the display case of his Aunt’s greatest literary prizes,
We know more about George now.
Before, you could imagine him as competent in his machinations.
Now, you can’t see him succeeding at wheedling any information from Annabelle.
However, my descriptors are terrible.
As a general rule, never use adverbs while revising.
Details about what makes the character breathless is much better than saying breathlessly.
George’s scurry came to a close now that the reading room’s heavy oak door closed behind him.
The graceful hundred-year-old hinges carried their burden, silent as always, until the latch slipped home.
Struck with a sudden worry, George paused to ensure the door wasn’t locked shut.
The opportunity to speak with the near-silent assistant to Aunt Kitty’s solicitor was rarer than many of his aunt’s treasured prizes locked away behind him.
It would be disastrous to have her turned away by something as stupid as a locked door.
Notice that the examples decrease the amount of comparative information when you glance back to the skeleton.
The rest of the skeleton needs the same amount of work that I’ve poured into “George is in the reading room”.
The payoff? We know a lot more about George, his aunt, her home, her lawyer, and the unmet Annabelle.
I’ve also grabbed a detail from the first expansion that I found interesting and expanded it into the rest of the attempts.
Aunt Kitty collects books like a hunter keeps trophies.
I want to keep using that extended metaphor to create comparisons.
George’s description will be animal-like, but reminiscent of small game.
He’s a rat chasing dropped crumbs.
The rat may need to watch out for larger hunters.
George is also slightly more clever.
His actions display some thoughtful care, and his attention to detail is highlighted.
So, we’ve looked into the private thoughts of a sly ferret of a nephew.
He catches details and tries to use them to his advantage.
His cunning is married to unattractive traits: scurrying, uselessly, and a desire to use other people.
The metaphorical hunt for Barristan’s secretive discussions’ CliffsNotes is begun.
Will George manage to find something intriguing? Or will larger predators crush him without a second glance?
The prompt is still very unpolished and needs revision.
We do have an example of part of the process of describing six words so that they give insight into the story.
Now do that again, for the rest of that skeleton.
You’ll need to make more skeletons of the rest of the scenes in that chapter, those chapters in the book, and that book in the series.
You’ve got multiple editing sessions waiting for your Sunday morning to catch typos and poor grammar.
Revisions removing the introduction of a plot trinket in the fourth chapter’s third scene are hidden near your two-in-the-morning stroke of genius.
Frantic re-writes, to catch all the times you misused legalese or descriptions of lawyers in Britain instead of America, are stalking you.
One of my writing professors mentioned that she’d done 50 or more revisions of her latest book.
I believe her.
This has been four revisions to six words.
All the best luck for your safari into the undiscovered areas of your imagination.
Bring a hat.
Use concrete language to create a picture in the reader's mind.
Do not say "flowers.
" Say "a talk blue vase brimming with white and scarlet roses.
" Be specific.
Avoid adverbs (-ly words).
Find better words.
Be consistent in the diction.
Do not use clumsy or unfamiliar words from a thesaurus in an effort to impress.
(That never works.
Start by jotting down your ideas.
Take time to revise, edit, rewrite.
A good descriptive paragraph won't fly out of your pen in one draft.