Do you spend a ton of time working on your writing descriptions? Writing can be an exciting and fulfilling experience, but it can also be challenging. One of the key elements of good fiction writing is the art of description. Effective descriptions can bring your story to life and help engage your readers.
In this post, we’ll discuss the importance of description in fiction, examples of effective descriptions in literature, tips for writing effective descriptions, and common pitfalls to avoid.
Description refers to the use of words to create a mental image or sensory experience for the reader. It can describe anything from a character’s appearance to a setting, to an object – anything that needs more details.
Why is Description Important in Fiction Writing?
Effective description is important in fiction writing for several reasons.
1. It can engage the reader by immersing them in the story world. Well-crafted descriptions can help readers imagine the characters and settings and make them feel more invested in the story.
2. Description can help create a sense of time and place. This can be especially important in historical or speculative fiction, where the world-building is an important aspect of the story.
3. Descriptions can reveal character traits. By describing a character’s appearance, mannerisms, or surroundings, the reader can gain insight into their personality and motivations.
Types of Descriptions
There are many types of description, including physical descriptions, emotional descriptions, and descriptions of actions or events.
This type of description appeals to the reader’s senses. It can include descriptions of what a character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels. Sensory description can help immerse the reader in the story and make it feel more vivid and real.
♦ The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: “In the deepening twilight, as the sky began to glow with the setting sun, the countryside around the farmhouse took on an eerie quality. The fields stretched away, a tapestry of shades of green and brown and gold, ending in a line of trees that bordered the horizon. The breeze, which had been hot and dry all day, stirred the leaves in a way that sounded like whispers, and the grasses shivered and sighed.”
In this excerpt, Kristin Hannah uses sensory details to paint a picture of the setting. The description of the fields as a “tapestry” and the use of shades of green, brown, and gold give a visual sense of the scene.
The description of the breeze as sounding like whispers and the grasses shivering and sighing provide auditory and tactile sensations, respectively. These sensory details help the reader better imagine and connect with the setting of the story.
Emotional description is used to convey a character’s feelings and emotions. It can describe their facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal cues that communicate how they are feeling.
♦ The Fault in Our Star by John Green: “My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”
This line is a great example of emotional description. Hazel (the character) is reflecting on the complexity and vastness of her thoughts and emotions, and compares them to stars in the night sky.
Using the word “fathom” suggests that Hazel feels overwhelmed by her thoughts and feelings, which helps to convey her emotional state to the reader. Writing with emotion helps readers to bond with the character and get a feel for their experiences. This book has an emotional impact because of John Green’s use of descriptive language.
This type of description describes the physical location of the story, such as the time period, the weather, the landscape, the architecture, and other details that create a sense of place. Putting in details about the setting gives the story life.
♦ The Shining by Stephen King: “Closing day at the hotel was traditionally marked by a grand party called the Overlook Hotel Closing Ball, to which the whole staff was invited. It was a gala event, and even the part-timers attended. Jack was trying to remember if he had ever been to one. If he had, it would have been in the years before Wendy and Danny, back when he had been drinking a lot and living on the edge of unemployment.”
In this excerpt, King paints a picture of the Overlook Hotel’s history and atmosphere, where a lot of the story takes place. Mentioning the Closing Ball emphasizes the hotel’s long-standing history, while Jack’s stories about his own experiences there evoke a darker side.
Using sensory details, such as the grand party and the mention of part-timers, gives the reader a sense of the hotel’s size and grandeur, while also emphasizing the emptiness and isolation of the setting. This type of description helps to create a rich and immersive world for the reader to explore.
Character description can include physical characteristics, personality traits, motivations, and other details that create a fully realized character. It can help readers visualize the characters and understand their actions and decisions.
♦ To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.” Jem would try to make him play tackle football with him but Atticus would always stop him and say, “I’m afraid I’d hurt you.””
With this passage, Lee gives us a glimpse of Jem’s character, what he’s interested in, and his bond with his dad, Atticus. Atticus’s not wanting to play tackle football with his son shows his care for Jem’s safety and well-being, not to mention his more reserved nature.
This type of character description helps readers get to know the characters better, comprehend their motives, and figure out their relationships.
Action description describes physical movements and actions that characters take in a scene. It can help make the scene feel more dynamic and engaging, while building tension and suspense.
♦ The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “I dig my hands into the earth, kneading it into thick mud. My muscles bunched and shiny with it. The mud was good. The mud would suck away the sweat and the blood and give me a little more time. I hear Thresh’s feet pounding on the turf, coming closer. Closer. I didn’t bother to turn. In the instant before he lands the killing blow, I know he’s male, a strong tribute from District 11. And I know too that, if I had had any chance of defeating him before, it’s gone now. Because between Thresh and me, the ground has risen into a small hill. Thresh caught me on the edge of that hill, where the mud had started to dry and the earth turned rocky.”
Here, the author paints a picture of a fight between Katniss and Thresh from District 11. The description of Katniss digging her hands into the earth and the mud sucking away the sweat and blood give a sense of the physicality and intensity of the fight. Sensory details like Thresh’s feet pounding on the turf and the ground rising into a small hill draw the reader in. This type of writing gives you a clear image of what’s happening and the thrill of the moment.
These are just a few examples of the description types that you can use in your writing. The key is to choose the type of description that best suits the needs of the story and the characters.
What Are the Elements of Writing Description?
Here are some things to keep in mind when writing descriptions:
Excellent description includes specific, concrete details that help the reader visualize the scene or character. These details can include sensory information, such as the smell of a flower or the sound of a bird, as well as other details that create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
♦ The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, worked all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.”
Fitzgerald brings Gatsby’s lifestyle to life with concrete details. Describing the Rolls as an “omnibus” and the station wagon “scampering like a bug” paints a clear image of the transportation used by Gatsby and his guests. Eight servants with mops, scrubbing-brushes, hammers, and garden-shears working all day help the reader imagine the cleaning and Gatsby’s wealth. This type of concrete detail helps to ground the story, making it easier for the reader to imagine the characters and their world.
One of the most important aspects of description is using vivid language to create a clear mental picture in the reader’s mind. Vivid language helps bring the description to life and makes it more engaging. This can include the use of metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, as well as creative and unexpected word choices.
♦ The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: “The mountain was tall and impossibly steep, like a wall in the sky. In some places, the trail was only wide enough for one person, and as Vianne climbed higher, the wind grew stronger, pushing her around. She gripped her basket tighter, the only thing that kept her steady. When she paused to rest, she looked out at the valley below, so vast and green that it seemed endless. The air was so clear, she could see the shimmering river in the distance, hear the songs of birds that circled overhead.”
In this excerpt, Hannah paints a vivid language of the mountain and the trail that Vianne (protagonist) is climbing. The comparison of the mountain to a “wall in the sky” creates a clear mental picture of the height and steepness of the mountain. Mentioning the narrow trail, plus the wind pushing Vianne, gives a feeling of danger and struggle. The description of the vast and green valley below and the shimmering river in the distance provides a sense of the grandeur of the setting. This type of vivid language helps to create a clear mental picture in the reader’s mind and makes the story more engaging.
Tone and Mood
The tone and mood of the description can help set the overall tone and mood of the story. For example, a description of a dark and stormy night might create a sense of foreboding or suspense.
♦ The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: “The summer I was sixteen I worked in a logging camp up in the mountains of western Oregon. It was a splendid job, and I loved it, and it allowed me to buy some black jeans and some old gray jackets and some high-top basketball shoes. And I remember walking back to the cabin with the feeling that I had just finished a wonderful adventure, and thinking to myself, even though I hadn’t been out of Oregon, ‘Now I can go anywhere in the world. It’s all right.'”
This passage gives off a real wistful, or nostalgic vibe as the narrator speaks about a past summer job in a logging camp and the feeling of accomplishment and adventure that came with it. Using phrases such as “splendid job,” “loved it,” and “wonderful adventure” conveys a positive tone and mood, while the mention of the ability to go “anywhere in the world” adds a sense of possibility and hope. This overall tone and mood of nostalgia and optimism helps to establish the narrator’s perspective and draws the reader into the story.
Related Reading: Improving Tone: How to Use Tone Effectively in Your Writing
Point of View
How the story is framed – the point of view – from which the description is written from a character’s perspective might include more emotional or personal details than one written from a more objective point of view.
♦ The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: “I glance at my watch. Half an hour until my train is due. Strange to think how much time can pass between two identical stations; how much life can be lived in that minute and a half, or how little.”
The description in this passage is from the point of view of the protagonist, Rachel, and her thoughts as she waits for her train. Hawkins’ connected her descriptions to Rachel’s feelings, so you can really get into her head. This creates a sense of tension and unease as the plot unfolds and Rachel’s perceptions are called into question. This use of point of view in description allows readers to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist, and adds depth to both the character and the plot.
Length and Pacing
The length and pacing of the description can also affect how the reader receives it. Long, detailed descriptions might slow down the pacing of the story, while shorter, more focused descriptions can be more impactful.
♦ War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: “The whole French army, and even Napoleon himself with his staff, were not on the far side of the streams and hollows of Sokolnitz and Schlappanitz beyond which we intended to take up our position and begin the action, but were on this side, so close to our own forces that Napoleon with the naked eye could distinguish a mounted man from one on foot.”
Tolstoy uses length and pacing to make the reader feel tense as the Russians prepare for battle against the French. The long and complicated sentence reveals the complexity of the military action, and the gradual revelation that the French forces were closer than expected increases the suspense. Tolstoy descriptions are often long and detailed, with a focus on the natural environment and the shifting fortunes of war.
These are just a few elements of writing description that you can consider when crafting your writing. The key is to choose the elements that work best for the story and the scene or character being described.
Examples of Descriptions
Now that we know the types and elements, let’s look at how some prominent authors have used description in their writing.
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini’s descriptions of Afghanistan are vivid and evocative. The following description captures the sensory experience of being in Afghanistan and helps to create a sense of place.
♦ The streets smelled of cumin and cardamom, of jasmine, of wet stone, of the dust kicked up by passing donkey carts.
The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s descriptions of Barcelona are both lush and atmospheric. For example, when describing the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he writes:
♦ The smell of old paper, dust, and ink flowed over me. I could hear the flutter of pages as I breathed in the scent of magic that only old books can give off.
The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood is the queen of subtle descriptions that reveal a great deal about her characters and their surroundings. For example, when describing a character’s face, she writes:
♦ Her face was a white oval with a chipped garnet for a mouth.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami’s descriptions often border on the surreal and dreamlike. For example, when describing a hotel room, he writes:
♦ The room seemed to have shifted imperceptibly to the left, like a stage set in a theater undergoing a scene change.
The Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s descriptions of the protagonist’s experiences of invisibility are both haunting and vivid. For example, when describing walking through the city at night, he writes:
♦ I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . I feel that I am gradually becoming invisible myself.”
10 Tips to Writing Effective Descriptions
There are lots of ways you can improve tone for your fictional novels. My advice…
1. Use sensory details: Incorporate sensory details to create vivid images in the reader’s mind. Sensory details can include descriptions of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
2. Use metaphors and similes: Metaphors and similes can add depth and complexity to your descriptions. Use them sparingly and in a way that enhances the overall meaning of the description.
3. Use strong verbs and adjectives: Strong verbs and adjectives can bring your descriptions to life. Use words that are precise to convey your intended meaning.
4. Show, don’t tell: Instead of telling the reader what something looks like, show them through actions and details. This can create a more immersive reading experience and help the reader connect with the characters and setting.
5. Use dialogue to reveal character traits: Dialogue can be a powerful tool for revealing character traits. Use it to show how characters interact with each other and to reveal their personalities.
6. Avoid over-description: Over-description can slow down the pace of the story and bore the reader. Stick to the most important details and use description to enhance the plot and character development.
7. Use descriptions to set the tone: Descriptions can help set the tone for your story. Use them to create an atmosphere that complements the plot and themes.
8. Use descriptions to reveal emotions: Descriptions can also reveal the emotional state of characters. Use them to show how characters are feeling and to create a sense of empathy with the reader.
9. Use descriptions to create tension: Descriptions can also create tension and suspense. Use them to create a sense of danger or uncertainty in the reader’s mind.
10. Read widely: To improve your description skills, read widely in the genre you’re writing in. Pay attention to how other writers use description and what works well for you as a reader. Incorporate these lessons into your own writing.
Last Words on Effective Description
In short, writing effective descriptions is an essential skill for any fiction writer. Vivid descriptions, powerful language, and different perspectives help readers connect with a story.
However, finding the sweet spot between over-description or under-description is important to keep readers engaged without overwhelming them. The key is to use your description in service to the story. It’s always about striving to create a rich and immersive world for readers to inhabit.
With practice and attention to craft, you can master the art of description and bring your stories to life on the page.
Feature image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay.