What is reading but “just staring at pieces of dead trees for hours and hallucinating vividly,” as one clever reader put it? In fiction, the descriptions writers bring to the page spur readers to feel the story in their hearts and guts as they conjure scenes in their mind’s eye.
Many writers dread writing descriptions. It’s difficult to know what to include, and it requires a lot of mental energy to summon interesting details from one’s imagination.
Description can involve the setting, an object, a character, actions, and even internal thoughts. It might entail an artfully placed sentence dancing between dialogue; a paragraph that grounds the reader in the scene; or pages of prose that sink deep into a particular subject.
I have five guiding principles for writing description. After touching on these basics, I’ll cover five more advanced strategies with in-depth examples.
1. Focus on details specific to the point of view.
With descriptive writing, it’s tempting to veer toward clichés because we don’t have to think too hard. If a writer wants to show that a character is beautiful, they might rely on a familiar phrase:
She turned heads when she walked into a room.
To make descriptions more memorable and engaging, be specific and go beyond the obvious:
At art museums, men would find excuses to talk to her, trying to steal her attention from Monet.
When it comes to rendering a scene, author David F. Shultz emphasizes the importance of knowing the story’s narrative lens. This includes how the point-of-view character perceives the world and what they notice. He explains this idea in his article on the topic:
“‘How do you describe a werewolf?’ is the wrong question; ‘How does the protagonist see a werewolf?’ is the question. The…