How To Write Compelling Description

So we’ve looked at developing our characters and their dialogue to a compelling level. Now what about their surroundings? Today I’m taking a look at description and some ways you can dress up any passages that you feel are particularly lackluster. Standard Disclaimer: Blady-blady-blady. Please don’t take my opinions as facts.

A frustrated writer struggling with description.

The typical mantra for writing description is “paint a picture”. This is essentially a euphemism for using adjectives and adverbs. Instead of saying Tyler looked out over the plain, say Tyler looked out over the grassy plain. The addition of the adjective gives the reader more details. Of course, you want your description to tie into the story and you don’t want to create a large string of adjectives and adverbs to append to every noun. My rule of thumb is that most nouns can support two descriptors / modifiers. Less than that is fine, if I use more than I need to really pay attention and make sure I’m not creating conflicting implications or being clumsy in my word choice.

Note: There are schools of thought that argue for using only the bare essentials when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, if using any of them at all. They speak at great lengths of the wicked “purple prose“. My personal opinion is that while they have a point, they take it way to far. Just because an overload of “flavor” is bad doesn’t mean that you should strip all the flavor away. I honestly enjoy a little purple prose every now and again.

Back on track. So judicious use of adverbs and adjectives to “paint the picture” is giving us better description. Next is to see how immersive we can make it. If you look at trends in the entertainment industry (which, let’s face it, is what us fiction writers are in), the big push is to make everything more immersive. So how do we do that? Go beyond painting a picture.

When you’re describing your scene, do not only focus on the visual aspects. Describe the sounds Tyler hears as the wind brushes the tall grasses together. Include smells, like the faint sweet of honeysuckle mingling with the dry brush of hay. And since he is standing next to a stone wall, we might as well describe how the stone feels under his hand; rough, warm and slightly damp from the moss he dislodged. And lastly, the easiest piece to forget is the spicy tar taste of the cigar he is chewing on.

By utilizing all of the senses, writers can provide the reader with an immersive experience that they cannot obtain from video games or movies. While it can be easy to neglect using all the senses, especially in today’s visual and audio driven environment, by incorporating them in  their descriptions writers will bring their scenes to life in a readers imagination. And that, after all, is really what we want, right? No matter the perspective, we are trying to create a certain experience and allow the reader to become lost in it.

If you want in depth reading on writing description, I recently finished “Word Painting” By Rebecca McClanahan and highly recommend giving it a go. Here is an excellent article on using adjectives effectively by Laura Cortright.

Quick Tips and Tricks:
  • Practice describing things using only smell, touch or taste. For a fun exercise, make cookies. While they are baking, sit down and write a paragraph or two describing the smell. Really stretch yourself and create some really purple prose. Once their done, write a paragraph describing their taste (of course you have to eat at least one). Get a feel for what adjectives and adverbs work and where.
  • Take a walk outside and listen to the bird calls. Smell some flowers. Smell the dirt. Touch the trees and note the different types of bark. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them you’re conducting research on sensory development.
  • Draw a map. No seriously, if you’re having trouble capturing the scene, draw a map of it. You can include characters, movement, walls, doors, appliances, whatever you want. You can make it as dynamic or static as you need to. But it will help you keep everything straight and keep you from missing things.
  • Don’t describe down to the most minute details. I like to give the reader enough to make a frame and a push as to what should be in there and let their imagination do the rest. For example, wood panels are just fine for me, I don’t need to say cedar wood paneling with a light red wood stain that clashed with… See what I mean. Unless it is important to the mood, tone, or plot that kind of stuff is a little over the top.

How about you? How do you write your descriptions? Do you prefer stark prose or the more colorful variety?

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15 responses to “How To Write Compelling Description

  1. Awesome write-up! And thanks for the link to my blog post, by the way. 🙂

    As for how I write descriptions, besides following the rules (Oh—sorry. Not rules. Opinions. But I agree with everything you stated in this post, so I look at your tips as basic rules or guidelines, anyway.) that you outlined, I follow my character’s voice. Based on the time period and place he/she grew up in, my protagonist will have developed a certain personality, and I need to show that in my writing. Because of his/her personal experiences, my protagonist might focus on certain details or describe them a certain way. While a toddler walking through the streets of San Francisco would notice the Irish band playing at the corner and stop to listen, awed at the new find, a business man might walk right past. Instead of the music, he might notice how difficult it is to walk through the crowds of stupid tourists with their shopping bags stuffed with souvenirs and the stench of fast food and vendors calling over the chaos, and why won’t that light change so he can walk across the street?

    Another exercise to try? Choose a random scene (walking through a park, shopping at the Mall of America, driving in Chicago) and describe it from a couple different points of view. What details would different characters be more or less likely to notice?

    • Definitely, perspective is all important. I didn’t even think to include that so I’m glad you caught it for me. That is a good exercise. I know in my re-write I need to focus on descriptions. I tend to either be long winded or minimalistic, one extreme or the other. :/

      • Gah. Ditto that. But you know what? Most of my first drafts suck, anyway. “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” – James Michener

      • Very encouraging 🙂 The old stiff upper lip approach! I’m planning on starting in on the re-write soon, I took nearly the whole month off to get some distance, but starting next week or so I’ll be back plugging away at it. What kind of pace do you set for re-writing?

      • For re-writing? Gosh. I’m still in the writing stage. Once I get all three roughroughrough drafts done (I’m writing a three-book series), I’ll start the re-write…and we’ll see where that takes me. I’m sort of afraid to look at the stuff I’ve already written, especially my first book. I’ve got the feeling that I’m going to be tearing out a few pages…burning them…cackling as I rid myself of my sins….

      • Well, this will be my first (completed) novel. Once I finish it of course lol. We’ll see how it goes, I might wind up pitching the whole manuscript. With my short stories I take the approach of write, review for grammar/consistency, and push them out. I’ve learned a lot writing that way, especially exercising the discipline to get it mostly right the first time around. But with the novel length it was to big to do that everywhere. I’m hoping to pace myself out at re-write/review a chapter every two days or so… we’ll see how it goes.

      • I’m at a sort of crossroads here, though. (Sorry for the cliché.) On the one hand, once I’m done writing the rough drafts, of course, it would be awesome to set myself a goal of editing one chapter every two days or something of the sort. I’ll probably do something like that on my first read-through. But I’m worried about putting time limits on myself. I want to push myself so that I can get stuff done—but I don’t want to rush. Of course, plastering the blanket statement “I’ll just work at my own pace” never works for me, either, because then I end up not doing anything.

        Oh, the woes of finding a machete to cut my way through the middle of the crossroads.

      • I know what you mean. What I have found working for me is to set the time limits/goals to help me stay on track more than anything else. If I miss them I take it as feedback on having goals that are too ambitious (or me being too lazy lol) but that is really it as the only person really holding myself accountable is me and I am largely still learning not only how to write but how I write. I found that writing a novel required a different writing pace/approach to writing short stories (largely due to structure), so there was a definite learning curve there and I would up finishing out the rough draft two weeks late and 15k words short of my original goal (expectation might be a better word). But the way I see it, that’s fine. I learned a lot about writing, I learned a lot about the importance of structuring, which I would have done without setting the goal of when to be finished. But I also learned a lot about forcing myself to write poorly and forcing myself to push through the tough pieces and how to let go of the desire to rewrite every paragraph five times before moving on to the next and that is because I was trying to meet my goal.
        I would suggest using a flexible goal to hold yourself accountable. For your first chapter set a time limit and if you feel like that is making you rush then push a little bit longer. It helps me that most of my chapters are short and of consistent length (2500 words approx) so getting through all that in two days should be really easy except where major touch ups are required and if it pushes my two day limit I will most likely mark it and set it aside to be dealt with on the second pass. That way I will have my first review/rewrite complete by the end of September, I can get my second pass done (hopefully) by the end of November, and be ready to self-publish the book by December. Barely in time for the holiday frenzy. But that is just what works for me.

      • Wow, you’re ambitious!

        My pace is…um. A bit slower. I want to finish the first draft of my second book by the end of September. Right now I’m still working out the kinks and figuring out what the rest of my storyline will be. I’m sort of meshing everything together in various sheets of loose-leaf. I have a folder crammed with different stacks separated by paper clips: three stacks for my subplots and one for how I plan to tie everything together. This is my – uh – “organized” way of planning. The bare-bones draft (aka my planning) will take another week or so.

        And my third book? I want that done by the end of May. Of course, in order to get myself there, I’ll have to make little goals along the way…but we’ll see how that pans out. The bare-bones draft that I’m using for my second book is working surprisingly well, so I’ll probably want to do that again. We’ll see. I’m still learning how I write, too, and that in itself is quite a process.

        But it sounds like we’re both getting there. 🙂

        Also – you mentioned that you were going to self-publish your book? I’ve researched a bunch about publishing and whatnot, but I still have no idea if I want to go through a large company or do it myself. Both have their pros and cons. So why did you choose to self-publish?

      • Ambitious is a kind way of putting it lol

        It sounds like you have a very solid plan and a disciplined approach that is far more realistic than me. I worry about getting bogged down and never actually finishing what I’m working on. I’ve also learned I prefer to either work really really hard or not at all, balance is still one of those out of reach zen things for me lol. Plus, if you’re working on a trilogy all at once (as it were) I would think it would require a more organized and disciplined approach than the standalone I’m trying to do. Like you said though, we’re both getting there.

        Self publishing was something I almost, sorta, fell into, largely due to frustration. I’d tried subbing shorts here and there (and still am) but found the whole process very convuluted and frustrating. Which might just be me. When I heard about self-publishing, it sounded like an interesting alternative. After a bunch of research I decided to go with it for the following reasons.
        A) I’m moderately capable with computers and figured I had a good chance of being able to handle the conversions and formatting on my own.
        B) In the same vein, I figured I would be able to work out how to do decent cover art, and if not it can be farmed out.
        C) I have several friends and relatives who are decent editors and were happy to do that for me.
        D) I can tell the stories I want to tell and in the manner I want to tell them.
        E) I’m a bit of a control freak, so the idea of being in charge of everything is more a pro than a con for me.
        F) Any money I make off of it is gravy right now, so there is little to no pressure to get things up and selling, this gives me a lot of freedom to play with different aspects and see what works best. Also, I find being an entrepeneur very interesting and exciting.
        G) But the real key for me is freedom. For example, the last short I wrote I submitted to a pair of magazines. Their response time is around six months. Perhaps I am overally hasty, but it drives me nuts to wait six months to get a (95% chance) rejection slip.
        I know other people find the traditional route is better for them and I think that’s really cool because it drove me nuts and made me not want to write. For me, self publishing is tremendously empowering and while I’m not breaking any levels I have made somewhere around $30 from book sales at this point. Which is really nothing in the grand scheme of things but it is orders of magnitude greater than anything any of the writers I know personally have made and for me, it’s something to be proud of 🙂

      • Solid plan? Ha! Nope. I don’t make plans. I make goals. Plans are for people who do what they say they will, and goals are for people like me. If I don’t meet my goals, meh. There might be a few curses. That ice cream Snickers might look a little yummier – but I’d refuse to let myself have it.

        Instead, I’d make a new goal.

        Hey! You know what? That Snicker-bar thing gave me an idea. Okay. Say you’re training a dog to sit. If he/she meets the goal (sitting), you give him/her a treat. Right? So WHEN I meet my next goal, I’m going to treat myself to…something. Maybe I’ll buy a container of fresh blueberries. Yum. My mouth is watering. Now THAT is a plan.

        Self-publishing does sound interesting, and it would be neat to see how far my marketing techniques could get me on my own. And yet. If my books had a chance with a fat-cat publisher, that would also be neat.

        Gah. I have enough to worry about…I should probably focus on finishing my books before I delve too much into the publishing fiasco.

      • It always helps to have them finished, right?! I don’t think there is really a “right” way to get published, as long as you end up published and being distributed, whether through the fat cats or Amazon etc… But yeah, I had a half dozen shorts already finished when I started, so I could kick it out there and see how it did 🙂

      • AHHHH! I forgot something!

        Thirty bucks from book sales? Woot! That IS something to be proud of. 🙂

      • Ha! It definitely helps to have my books finished before I try to publish them. 🙂 And you’re welcome.

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