D is for Description


“She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks.” 

“Although Vermont is frigid in the winter, its summertime shimmers. That’s stating the obvious to anyone who knows New England, but it was my brave new world. The mud season that begins in March and lasts well through May buffers one’s mind from winter’s ravages, so that, by the glorious day when neon-green leaf buds first appear on every tree, one can barely remember the bitter February winds streaming off the lake in great, frigid sloughs. Every year, the lake freezes solid around the shoreline, groaning and cracking under the push of the shifting wind, but, in the century-long life of Winloch, the winter had been heard only by the workingmen, men called in to plow the roads, or plumb frozen pipes, men who had the north country in their blood and the dried-up curl of French Canadian on their tongues.” 
Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreBittersweet

Writing descriptions in fiction can be tricky. Add too much, and it can overwhelm the story and reader--like adding too many spices to a dish. Add too little, and you risk making your tale too bland. 

But done right? 

They transform your words into a splendid feast for the senses.

Well, there are lots of things to describe, you might say. 
How do I know what to include, and what to leave out? 

Start with the unusual--things that stand out and are most connected to your character or setting. Include as many senses as possible. For example, is there anything about your character that is unique to her? The shape of her nose, the sound of her voice, the way that she laughs, dresses or chews her food? For a location, what makes that place special? What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like?

Brain chemistry

Did you know that different areas of our brains light up when we read?

According to writer Annie Murphy Paul, "there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters."

But wait--there's more. A 2006 study contends that descriptive words used too frequently (figures of speech, for example), do not appear to stimulate the brain in specific ways. So there's another good reason to avoid clichés, hackneyed phrases, or non-specific language. 

Hmm. Nope, no pressure there to use the right words.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass."
                          -Anton Chekhov

Practice writing description

Practice doing it in real life. Visit a restaurant or another vibrant scene, and jot down everything that you notice. Do the same thing for a quiet spot in nature, or at your house. Notice what sticks out to you--and what doesn't.

Be on the look out for descriptive writing by others that works well. Ask yourself what it is about the description that is so effective. What tools did the writer use to achieve his or her goals? Consider keeping a journal of writing examples that you wish you'd done yourself. 

More resources:

Description: Elements of Fiction Writing, by Monica Wood
Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, Rebecca Mc Clanahan
The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description, Sharon M. Lippincott




  1. I like your analogy about not using too many spices in a description. I don't mind descriptive scenes, if written well. I find that you can still tell a lot without telling everything.

    Thanks for visiting my blog recently.

  2. Hello Sati,

    I hope you don't mind that Mike provided me a link to your blog, and well I owe him and you a debt of gratitude. Reading your posts has proven to be a serendipitous experience, something I did not expect when I woke up this morning.
    I'm a self-taught writer with a speck of natural talent wrapped in an overcharged imagination. My mentors were never human but fictional characters who inspired me to put words on paper. My father, a writer himself, thought I was foolish to believe that I could be successful. He wanted me to be more practical, like learning to fix computers. His death derailed me and the guilt silenced my prosaic voice. The reason why I'm mentioning this is because I've finding my way back. Your posts have been like beacons on a stormy night. I cannot wait for more!

    1. Jame, thank you so much. I am truly delighted to have you here! It is never too late to make your writing dreams come true. You can do it! Please let me know if there is any subject in particular that you'd like me to cover & I'll see what I can do in future posts.

  3. Neat post and I enjoyed the photos


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A poem for the times: and one night, all that was burning

E is for Editing

A-Z Challenge Reflections