The Ultimate Guide to Writing Engaging Descriptions in Fiction

Diane Callahan
24 min readDec 30, 2022
Text: How to Write Engaging Description over a library background

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.

An excerpt from Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion: He kept his eyes on the highway and his foot hard on the accelerator. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled. The late sun glazed the Pacific. The wind burned on her face.
An example of a paragraph of description that grounds the reader in the scene, from Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays

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.

Text overlaid on pink water lilies: At 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…