Today’s reader craves more than a great read; they want to experience something they haven’t before. And that something had better be fresh, unusual and exciting. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, excellent description draws the reader into your world. Only one thing to do: become a master at writing description.
Unless it’s your first draft—remember, it’s okay to write BAD as you capture your ideas on paper and fix later—do not use judgment terms (she was beautiful, the landscape was amazing). They tell the reader nothing and work against bringing an experience to the page. But writer beware!
Do not simply list the attributes of a person, place, or thing. Writing static “laundry list description” will break Mark Twain’s first rule of writing: Thou shall not bore the reader.
So how do you write great, vivid description?
Choose details wisely.
In our modern world, readers are savvy. When you mention a place (India, Africa, or Ireland for instance) chances are your reader is familiar with it. If they haven’t actually been there, they’ve experienced it on television, in the movies, or through the Internet. Maybe they’ve gone to an ethnic restaurant or perhaps, listened to world music. So they can see, taste, feel the place already. Make sure to choose details that are…fresh, unusual and exciting, of course.
Use concrete, specific and appropriate words.
A person whose complexion glows like a pearl or is smooth like alabaster is different from someone who is fish-belly white, or whose skin is bloodless, or the unfortunate person who has turned the color of bleached athletic socks. And what about the apparition whose figure is a wisp of white on frigid air? All terms describe pale but evoke very different images and feelings.
Allow your description to cross-dress.
How does a sound taste? What’s the color of lonely? What feels like funny? How does heartache smell? Can you touch anger? Dig deep and find what is beautiful about something ugly and reveal it. And vice-versa. Thinking beyond the usual, or giving a twist can bring life to description.
Weave description into the story action.
Never stop the story to describe. Never. Never. Never. (Did I mention, never?)
Make every detail revealing and intriguing.
What can a reader surmise about the woman whose “Cats for Peace” t-shirt is ironed into a perfect, stiff body-tent? A refrigerator covered with magnets and photos gives us hints about the character living there. Especially if you are writing a mystery and the character is stalking another. What will we discover within the teenager who pierces and tattoos their face into a psychedelic pincushion? And what if that same teenager spends hours at homeless animal shelter, dedicating their spare time to care for abandoned pets?
Use all five senses and even the sixth one.
Sight and sound are the most obvious part when writing description. Smells? That’s one element I always have to add later. Don’t forget taste if appropriate. Touch? Allowing the reader to physically feel the world will draw them in and deliver experience. Adding the sixth sense—from intuition or a “feeling” to psychic observations—can be a powerful tool when writing description.
Give every description an emotional connection to the narrator, and therefore your reader.
Don’t forget to add attitude, or how your narrator feels about what they see-hear-touch-smell-taste. If your reader experiences the emotion along with your point-of-view character, you add power to description. Not to mention, you will end up with writing that is (all together now) fresh, unusual and exciting.
When a reader gets lost in your fictional world as the real one melts away, congratulations! You’ve gone beyond writing common description.
Thanks for these great tips Kathy! I’m always so inspired after reading your blogs to pick up my pen and create something wonderful!
Oh Diane, that’s great! And the nicest thing you could say. You go, girl :o)
Great article, Kathy, as description is always something I struggle with in my writing.
Thanks, Jenna. Yeah, I always have to think about and rewrite it a whole lot too, but it makes such a difference when I work on it.