Quick Tips for Writing Description

by V. Shalace [October 22, 2020]

Descriptions play an important role in story writing, because descriptions help readers picture the story and immerse themselves in the setting and the characters. When you describe something, you are sharing details with the reader that, hopefully, help bring them into your story and make the story more real to them. These could include, for example, how things look, how someone feels when faced with a particular situation, or what something tastes or smells like.

Here are a few quick tips to help you get started thinking about descriptions when you write your story.

1. Take advantage of all five—or more—senses.

There are many types of descriptive details that can be included. While visual descriptions like what color an article of clothing is or how tall someone is are important, other details like textures, sounds, and smells can be just as—if not even more—powerful.

Take advantage of the different senses that we use to interact with the world when you write (sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing). If you’re working in a fantastical setting, you might even add to these with things like a sixth sense for the supernatural.

The way you present these details can also help you highlight certain aspects of your characters. For example, to a character who is in a bad mood, perhaps the sun would seem too bright. Perhaps the light would be harsh and glare off the surfaces of cars and buildings. If the character is happy, however, that same sun might feel bright and warm. The specific details you provide and the words you use to provide them will affect the tone of the scene, as well as the characters and events within it.

2. More is not necessarily better. Be selective.

While adding descriptive details is helpful, you also want to be strategic about what details you include. If you describe too much, you can overload your reader and obscure the details that are actually important to your story.

Think carefully about what your reader really needs to know and what you want them to focus on or think about.

One thing you may want to consider when you’re making decisions about how much to describe is how important something is. If a character plays only a minor role and is going to make only a single, token appearance, I probably don’t need to tell readers every little detail about what the character looks like, how he dresses, and how he behaves. On the other hand, if I spend a whole paragraph just describing a book, the reader is probably going to expect that book to be a very important part of my story.

3. Try out a few different descriptive techniques: similes, metaphors, personification, etc.

Using different descriptive techniques such as figurative language can make your descriptions both more vivid and more fun to read.

Similes and metaphors are a common example of this; they refer to when people describe something by comparing it to something else. “He slept like the dead”, “she was as fierce as a lioness”, or “he was a tortoise on the race track” are just a few examples. These comparisons can help evoke more powerful images in a reader’s mind than more straightforward descriptions. However, they are also more subject to interpretation, meaning that readers may not interpret your similes and metaphors in the way that you expect. Make sure to choose your comparisons carefully.

Also, don’t get carried away with figurative language. Using too much figurative language when you write can make it very confusing and cumbersome to read.

4. Vary the way you structure your sentences.

There are a number of different ways to structure your sentences in the English language. Try playing around with some of them and using a variety of sentence types when you write so that your sentences don’t all feel the same. Here is a quick example of what I mean.

    • Sentence #1: My dog was lying on my toes under the table, her body heavy and warm.

    • Sentence #2: Under the table, my dog was lying on my toes, her body heavy and warm.

    • Sentence #3: The warm weight of my dog pressed down upon my toes under the table.

    • Sentence #4: My dog, heavy and warm, had taken over my toes under the table, the weight of her pressing down on my feet and anchoring them to the floor.

Of course, although these sentences are all describing the same thing, they each provide slightly different information in a slightly different way. Making choices around these differences will help you create descriptions that are both informative and interesting. It will also help you to start developing your own storytelling style and voice.