How to Write Description

Description is the bedrock of storytelling. Good description brings a scene to life and makes it vivid in the reader’s imagination. This is achieved by following one of writing’s sacred rules: Show, Don’t Tell

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If you write your story by showing the reader what’s happening rather than just telling them, it’s more involving. It draws the reader in so they have to work things out for themselves and engage with the story and characters. ‘Showing’ puts the reader in the centre of the action.

When writing description, use all the senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, as well as feeling and emotion. Be specific. If there are trees, what kind of trees are they? Give us the details, but not too many. The best description is specific and evocative. You give the reader just enough detail for them to fill in the gaps. Description should provoke imagination, not dictate it.

Good description makes your story more authentic and believable, and should answer the five basic questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • How?

Not every part of your story needs to be shown in great and glorious detail. Some things can be simply stated (i.e. told) if they’re not that important to the story. If you show every little thing that’s going on, you’ll get bogged down and your story will grind to a halt.

So, for example, if it’s raining in a particular scene but that detail isn’t massively important, you can just write:

It was raining.

There’s no need to bring the rain to life by describing exactly how it’s bouncing off the pavement, or trickling down the window, or whatever. But if you have a character out for a stroll in the rain and they’re wearing glasses and the rain is making it hard for them to see where they’re going, you might want to go into more detail and show us what that’s like:

Archie stumbled down the street, darts of rain stung his face and mottled his thick lenses with rivulets of water.

That’s kind of overdoing it, but you get the idea.

The Right Verb

Using active verbs brings your description to life. There’s nothing worse than the wrong verb, it really puts a crimp in your sentence. In the example above, Archie is out for a walk in the rain. You could simply write:

Archie walked down the street

But how is he walking? There are many, many ways to walk. You can stroll, amble, march, trudge, stride, sashay, etc. I chose the word ‘stumbled’ above to show Archie was having trouble seeing where he was going due to the rain clouding his glasses. It wouldn’t work at all if I’d written:

Archie skipped down the street

That would just confuse the reader. Unless there was another reason for Archie to skip, in which case he would probably be oblivious to the rain on his glasses and you would write that sentence in a different way.

Description can be used to slow the pace of the story, build tension, and draw attention to important details or clues. You can focus the reader’s imagination on anything you like and direct how they perceive what’s going on. This is particularly important for the big events in the story, like the main plot points or set pieces. You can show these events by breaking down the action using vivid details and active verbs. This will stick these moments in the reader’s mind, and ensure they carry your story with them when the final page is turned.

Here’s an example of great description from Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg:

We have eaten without exchanging a word. Partly, of course, because what was not said before is still hovering in the room. But mostly because the soup demands it. You can’t talk over this soup. It’s shouting from the bowl, demanding your undivided attention.

Isaiah was the same way. Sometimes when I read aloud to him or when we listened to Peter and the Wolf, my attention would be distracted by something else and my thoughts would run away with me. After a while he would clear his throat. A friendly, remonstrating, telling sound. It meant something like: Smilla – you’re daydreaming.

It is the same with the soup. I’m eating it from a deep soup plate. The mechanic is drinking it from a big cup. It tastes of fish. Of the deep Atlantic Ocean, of icebergs, of seaweed. The rice has traces of the tropics, of the folded leaves of the banana palm. Of the floating spice markets in Burma. My imagination is running away with me.”

Which novels contain your favourite descriptions? Share below…

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