Write a Great Description in Three Easy Steps

Readers can’t relate to a story without narrative description. It happens in a vague world of shadows and smoke that readers have never visited—a world of floating voices and gunshots (splitting the silence, probably) but no real physical matter. It fails to engage the senses and ignite the imagination.Write_a_Great_Description_in_Three_Easy_Steps

If you’re like me, most of your descriptions may read like this: “It was raining outside.” Not exactly imagination-evoking material. Story worlds must come to life for readers, or stories never can. Vivid description is life-or-death for your story, but there’s a secret to pulling it off. Don’t believe me? Try these three easy steps.

1. Choose Details

If you’re aiming for a minimal description philosophy, and you mention your characters are on the beach, readers will be able to fill in the rest of the details, right?

Wrong.

If you ration the amount of describing that you do (intentionally or not), make it count. Don’t generalize and say “the beach.” Instead, include physical details common to your setting, like sand for a beach. What textures or objects would readers associate with your setting? Forest: trees. Library: bookshelves. Downtown: concrete.

You want readers to know as well as feel they are on a beach. Highlighting specific details will generate a clear image in readers’ imaginations—a solid foundation for the next two steps.

2. Stay Active

Now you need to awaken your story world. Take the detail you chose in the last step and give it motion. Maybe it’s sand grinding between your hero’s toes, or wind whipping leaves as they fall from the forest top. A moving scene is much more interesting to readers.

You don’t have to limit yourself to animating only the setting (wind, crowds, birds, etc.). Using your character’s actions to energize the scene will help place your story in the world you’re creating, and hopefully it won’t interrupt the flow of your story’s events. Maybe your hero hangs his coat on a rack or sticks his knife into the pinewood table. Showing your character and setting interacting enlivens both.

3. Be Unexpected but Not Confusing

It’s time to add the final touch: a layer of the unexpected. So far you’ve used only unsurprising details—sand on a beach, trees in a forest. You need those details so readers understand the characters are on a beach, but now you need to pinpoint which beach. You don’t want readers to  view the story in the context of general “beachness.” You want them to experience the story as if it is unfolding on an actual beach. To do that, you need unexpected details.

Before you get carried away, “unexpected” doesn’t mean you start landing UFOs on a beach with purple sand and black water. Your details must be within the realm of probability for your story. Perhaps a better word would be “distinct.” For a beach, maybe seagulls drag fragments of an empty potato chip bag through the sand. For a forest, maybe a black squirrel chirps and flicks his tail in an oak tree. Details like that will ground readers on that beach or in that forest, and not just “a beach” or “a forest.” That’s the key to enrapturing them in your story world.

Save It for the Next Draft

I write my best prose when I’m engrossed in my characters’ struggles and conflicts. Pages fly by of witty conversations, internal dialogue, and character actions. When I hit a rhythm in a story, sometimes scenes form so rapidly that I don’t have time to write any description, much less good description.

That’s okay.

If you struggle to work description into your first draft, don’t. Let it wait; the draft won’t be any worse off for it. When you are ready, insert all the missing descriptions in draft number two. Take your original, poor description (“It was raining outside”) and expand it though this three-step process. Apply physical, real-world detail. Give it motion. Then make it unique. Like this: “Raindrops rolled down the needles of the red pine (specific detail) and splashed (active voice) onto the asphalt-patched sidewalk (unique/unexpected element).”

Better than “It was raining”?

Definitely.

Profile photo of Brandon Miller
Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.
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Comments

  1. Great solid rules. Nice simplicity.

  2. Good stuff. Descriptions are something I really struggle with; this is very helpful.

  3. Great stuff here. Easy to remember. 😉 Thank you.

  4. So helpful! Loved the step by step techniques you mentioned to make places come to life. Writing with vivid, descriptive detail is what makes up the core of my style, really. Thanks for the chance to help improve that skill. 🙂

  5. Love this article. I had it running through my head during the majority of my writing yesterday. I’m afraid I was completely disregarding much description until now. 😮

  6. Thank you so much! This will be very helpful as I try to write better descriptions! And I loved that it was a simple, three steps only article! Nice and easy for my poor brain to understand. 😉
    2 Corinthians 12:9

    • You’re totally welcome! I’m glad it helped. I tried to keep it down to earth, so many parts of writing can be so up in the air, you know what I’m saying? Not this part though… good luck moving forward!

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