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.
She was having a midlife crisis.
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?
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.