Category Archives: advice

5 Simple Tricks to Improve Your Descriptions (and Become a Better Writer)

One area where many writers struggle is with writing prose descriptions. This is understandable since description is the bread and butter of storytelling. And yet writing good description can also be tenaciously challenging.

There is no tried-and-true formula for writing “good” descriptions. Think of it more like writing what’s appropriate for the tone, voice, genre, and action of the story. In The Sun Also Rises, considered one of the great works of 20th-century literature, Ernest Hemingway wrote his description simply, sparingly, and unadorned. Compare that to another classic, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, where the author goes on for page after page just to describe a painting.

That said, you don’t have to be a Hemingway or a Melville to write good description. Here are five simple tricks anyone can use to level up their writing game and become a more effective storyteller:

1. Don’t name it, describe it instead.

Seems obvious, right? It’s less obvious than it sounds. It’s also a very simple trick to write more engaging, more interesting (and more artistic) prose descriptions. The idea here is to not name the subject being described. Instead, you will say anything and everything but naming what it is (this is also an excellent—and fun!—writing exercise).

Let’s take the example of a zombie. “Zombie” is a great example because in naming the subject a “zombie,” you automatically conjure a one-dimensional abstract idea in the mind of the audience, which both cheapens its impact and forces you to work harder to overcome biases or preconceived ideas about what a zombie is, does, and should be like.

Instead, we can describe what the zombie looks like (pale skin rife with infected sores), how our senses perceive the zombie (a wave of sickeningly sweet stench assaults my nose, triggering my gag reflex), or what it does (stumbling forward like a baby deer, unsteady on its legs)—all without having to use the literal word “zombie.” (Don’t worry, audiences are smart. They’ll get it.)

Another way to think of it: How do your characters experience the situation? How about: Here is a dead, rotting human being that is somehow impossibly moving around me. And I recognize their face. Am I sure they’re even dead? Are they diseased? I can see splintered bone through a hole in its skin. I think I’m going to be sick. How do you stop this thing? Et cetera.

Compare that to describing the subject as a “Zombie”—a light term, a funhouse idea, something you see in movies. What a difference, right?

2. Avoid abstractions.

Piggybacking off #1 in the list, avoiding abstractions is another easy way to write better description. An “abstraction” is any word that is open-ended in its interpretation, and therefore lacking in concrete detail. Think of words like “perfection” or “good” or “beautiful.” Sure, you can use these words and the audience will understand what you mean in a general sense. But each person will see “perfection” or “beauty”—and even “good”—very differently. Poets avoid abstractions like they’re on fire. Maybe they’re onto something.

Like #1, you are essentially avoiding the abstract word (“zombie” is abstract, but not necessarily an abstraction) and instead describing the specific things that add up to that abstraction. If we are describing a new character as “perfect,” instead jot down a list of descriptors, characteristics, aspects, or behaviors that make you think of “perfect.” Guess what? String those together and you’ve just written a better description than simply writing “perfect.”

For example, if we are describing a sculpture, “perfect” could be replaced with statements like marble so smooth and intricately detailed that it resembled real cloth you could touch and move with the slightest breath, or swooping inward at such a meticulously symmetrical angle, or bewelled about its mouth with emeralds and rubies and other precious stones, each as clear as a mountain stream and free from defect. The list goes on.

As with #1, we described around the abstract idea without using the abstraction itself. The end result is description that’s far more vivid.

3. Be specific.

You’ve probably noticed a recurring theme there. Superb descriptions have one thing in common: specificity. The best descriptions aren’t too vague, abstract, or general. They use specific details. In this case, we mean being really specific. It’s hard to over-emphasize just how effective this tactic can be in getting an image across.

Specific is concrete. Specific is unique. Specific conveys an idea with as little wiggle room as possible for misinterpretation. In addition, highly specific descriptions tend to stick in the audience’s mind and imply a much greater level of information on top of that. In short, it packs a punch.

Let’s say we’re describing a character’s midlife crisis. There are endless ways to do that. One thing to avoid is vagueness. It’s a big feeling with a lot of factors that go into it.

Compare:

She was having a midlife crisis.

to:

She felt like her life amounted to a bug splattered sideways on the windshield of an old rusty pickup truck, which was then retired to a dilapidated barn and left to gather dust.

Obviously, one of those descriptions is way more specific. Think about how much more information that “bug splatter” description delivers compared to the plain “midlife crisis” sentence. Remember, not everyone in the audience will understand what it’s like to experience a midlife crisis, or will have had exactly the same experience as the character. Being specific helps illuminate the unfamiliar.

4. Use uncommon words (occasionally).

Building on what we learned in trick #3, one way to help your descriptions be more specific is to pepper in the occasional uncommon word. This doesn’t mean hunt down the most obscure word you can find and jam it into the text (hint: that usually doesn’t help—it’s akin to using an abstraction). Instead, try grabbing a few of the more unusual words out there to help your description stand out. You’d be surprised at just how many words readers know.

For example, let’s say we are describing a stranger that looks exactly like someone our character already knows. Instead of saying the stranger looked exactly like someone I know or they could be their doppelganger, you can be more specific by describing the stranger as a flesh-and-blood simulacrum of my childhood best friend, [insertnamehere]. Not only are we being specific, but dropping the uncommon word, “simulacrum,” into the description makes the event less mundane and much more mystical.

Uncommon words are also a great addition to a character’s dialogue to help differentiate them from the rest of the cast. If you elect to go this route, I strongly suggest not adding it to every character’s dialogue unless you’re going for a certain effect.

5. Paint the picture, but don’t belabor the point.

Here’s a trick from screenwriting that I wish every writer knew. One of the most mind-boggling parts about writing description is: What do I describe and how much?

Good question.

The answer is simpler than you think: You don’t have to describe everything. In fact, it’s better that you don’t. Description slows pacing and holds little weight compared to other narrative elements, like conflict or creating memorable trailer moments.

So how do you “paint the picture” with description?

First, let’s start by pointing out that all the tricks we’ve talked about up to this point feed into this one tactic. You will use #1-#4 to accomplish this, but especially #3. 

I mentioned screenwriting. When you’re writing a movie or TV script, you have so little space to communicate information that every phrase must carry maximum impact. Do you remember when we described a character’s midlife crisis as a bug splattered on a windshield? (If not, it’s time to revisit the description back in #3.) That’s the start of painting the picture. Using that very descriptive sentence, we create a crisp, concrete sense of emotion, mindset, and imagery.

In a screenplay, we could end it there. But if you are working in a more word-heavy medium like narrative fiction, then you can use that line as the start of painting a more complete picture. Maybe we don’t have to go into every single detail that led to the midlife crisis. However, we can support that initial description by adding supporting statements that give specifics. Again, not everything, just a few brushstrokes to get the point across, help us understand the character, their current emotional state, and the situation. And we will do so using every trick we have at our disposal.

For example’s sake, we’ll follow up our sentence, “She felt like her life amounted to a bug splattered sideways on the windshield of an old rusty pickup truck, which was then retired to a dilapidated barn and left to gather dust,” with three descriptive statements about the most salient items in the character’s mind that lead her to this feeling.

Maybe she feels the cavity in her soul, an aching in the deepest recesses of her body and spirit because of the death of her daughter (I know, dark). She feels like a songbird caught in a birdcage and the owner has gone away, never to return. And most recently, her latest art gallery opening was a disastrous flop—only five tickets sold and even the gallery owner got drunk and passed out after one-too-many back-room martinis.

Even if we wrote nothing else about the situation, the audience would at least get a strong sense of where this character is in her life, how she is feeling right now, and also pick up on a tone that mixes both tragedy and comedy. And we only had to write four short descriptions. Magic!

The Bottom Line

Good description doesn’t happen by accident (okay, maybe sometimes it does). It takes hard work to write descriptions that connect with the audience, create a clear sense of the subject, and convey the writer’s intention. Yes, there are other ways to continue improving your ability other than writing description. And also yes, description isn’t the only part that matters in storytelling. But learning to write poignant description is a surefire way to improve your overall skill as a writer.

That’s it for now. Never stop writing!

Do you have thoughts? Questions? Contemplations? Share in the comments below or message me on Twitter: @storyscience.

Why Does Success or Failure Matter? A Quick and Easy Guide to Creating Stakes in Storytelling

Let’s start at the beginning—

What Are Stakes?

Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.

If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.

However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.

In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.

Why Are Stakes Important?

Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.

What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?

If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.

This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:

  • The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
  • The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
  • The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
  • The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.

Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.

Yikes.

Nobody wants that.

How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?

Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.

Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.

A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.

Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.

A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)

Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.

Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.

So a rough formula might look something like this:

Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds

If Succeed > Raise Stakes

If Fail > “Character Death”

Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story

Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:

  1. The stakes must be clear, always.
  2. The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
  3. Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
  4. The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
  5. Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
  6. You can always go bigger.
  7. Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
  8. Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
  9. Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
  10. Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
  11. Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
  12. Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.

Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work

Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.

Here’s how we might do that:

  • The project is on a tight deadline.
  • It requires his entire workforce.
  • If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
  • If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
  • The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.

If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.

Raising the Stakes

Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.

The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.

How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.

For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.

However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too  big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.

Speaking of which….

Example of Raising the Stakes

Let’s return to the example of the business owner:

Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.

To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.

How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.

We can do this in other ways, too:

The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.

In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.

Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.

Whew!

Without stakes, none of it would matter.

There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!

If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.