Denise Robbins

Description in Fiction

How many of you can write good, effective descriptions?

“Um.” My head drops to my chest. “Not so much.”

One of the most difficult elements of fiction writing is constructing effective descriptions. Too little description disorients the reader. Too much description bores the reader. Description is the seasoning that flavors a story, and good writers are aware of how to use description to their advantage. Of course, too much or too little is in the eye of the reader.

Many times writers can write dialog very well, but when it comes to description, they blunder it. Either you forget the description, or even worse, you put so much flowery detail in you bore the reader to sleep.

I do not know about you, but I cannot stand a book that has paragraphs and paragraphs of detailed description in one spot. Guess what I do when I get to a long detail section of a book. Yawn.

“Skip ahead.” One person shouted from across the room.

“Turn the page.” The person sitting next to me whispered in my ear.

“Close the book and find another.” This is the worst-case scenario but it does happen.

What is description?

Description lets the reader visualize the people, places, settings and objects in your story.

“Gee. It seems everything comes down to show vs. tell.”

Why do we need description?

A good, effective description evokes a vivid picture, drawing the reader into the story by allowing him/her to experience it through sensory detail, yet leaves the interpretation open enough so that if you ask any two readers what they "see," they will tell you something different. A well-written description moves the story along and adds to characterization.

Notice that last sentence. Description is not meant to be “filler”. Good description moves the story along. Remember, you do not want to bore the reader.

What makes a good descriptive passage?

Three elements make up a good descriptive passage:

  1. specific, well-observed detail
  2. revelation of the character's inner life
  3. motivation, the impulse that drives that character


Write your fiction descriptions with the following tips in mind and watch your story come alive.

Tip 1

Choose what to describe.

Look at people, places and things around you in a new way. Notice not just the obvious details, but also the less obvious, subconscious details. In observing a man's clothing, notice not just the "suede bomber jacket, pink polo shirt, denim pants and brown leather shoes," but also whether his pants legs brush the ground. Why do they brush the ground? Is it because he shuffles when he walks? Notice the polo shirt has mustard stains on it, and his shoes have no laces. In real life, these details are exactly the kind of thing we subconsciously notice when we look at someone, and these are what you focus on when you write your description.

Tip 2

Choose when to describe.

Description slows down a scene. Avoid describing a story element in the midst of an action scene unless you want a pause in the momentum. Only describe when the description serves more than one purpose. Describe a character only when she has an impact on another character or when the description advances the story or you want to slow down the pacing. Notice in the books you read, secondary characters are not described in detail unless they are important to the protagonists.

Tip 3

Choose whose point of view to use.

Describing something from a character's point of view makes the description more lively and entertaining to read. "The man wore a shifty expression and dark, cutoff jean shorts" is not as lively as, "The man's shifty expression was the first thing Jane noticed--that, and his dark, fraying jean cutoffs gave her serious misgivings."

Tip 4

Be specific, but not too specific. Do not let the details you write limit the reader's imagination.

How many of you have read a book and had an image of the hero in mind and when you look at the book cover, you see something completely wrong?

“Hate that! I do not want someone else’s visual image of the hero.”

Your descriptions should be open-ended enough to evoke images in the reader's mind. However, it is also the writer’s job to direct the reader's interpretation by furnishing broad impressions. Do not assume the reader will draw "obvious" conclusions from the details. (Remember what they say when you assume.)

Do not write, "The woman had inky black hair with streaks of white down the middle of her scalp. It was so thick it trailed down her shoulders all the way to her bra line, ending in thin wisps that suggested she had not trimmed it for some time. As she talked, her hands kept brushing the locks out of the way, and Dick wondered if the curls close to her scalp were natural or from a perm."

Instead, write, "The woman was gorgeous. Her black hair fell well short of her hips, drifting long and untended down her back, but what, Dick thought, gazing foolishly, were a few split ends on a face like that?" Note how the second description, while less detailed, is more evocative.

Tip 5

Vary your sentence structure so that the descriptive details are included in the action.

Writing, "It was black, brown and flat. It had many spindly legs and two wings. It looked like a roach magnified ten times," will only bore your reader. (It, it, it.)

Try, "Black, brown and flat, the spindly legged thing crawled toward Jane. A cockroach? No, she thought, edging backward. No cockroach was that big."

Tip 6

Avoid purple prose, or overly flowery and descriptive language.

There is nothing wrong with eloquent or lengthy descriptions, but avoid abusing adjectives and adverbs in writing your descriptions.

Do not write, "Disgustingly slimy, the horrendously bloated creature left an icky, brown, muddy trail as it sinuously slithered through the wet, mushy swamp ground." (If you have not already learned the “ly” lesson, here it is. Avoid it. Seldom should you use descriptive words ending in “ly” – it’s telling, not showing.)

Instead, write, "Jane watched in sick fascination as the creature slithered through the swamp ground, its bloated body in shadows, lending it, she saw with a gulp, the camouflage it needed to stalk its prey." Note how the second description is more fun to read, while also advancing the story because it makes you feel a part of the action.

Tip 7

Use description to characterize.

Description can characterize both the person described and the person viewing. For example, "Jane leaped backward, shrieking, as the vile man lunged for her, his mud-covered hands smearing her dress so badly she just knew Dick would call off the wedding the moment he saw her. Enraged, she grabbed one of those filthy arms, twisted it behind his back and kicked Mr. Slimeball right out the mahogany church doors."

When is enough description?

A basic rule of thumb is that a scene should contain a description of no more than three of the five senses. If you describe how something tastes, looks and smells, for example, you can leave out how it sounds and feels. If you are too aggressive in assaulting your reader's senses, he or she will get tired of the prose and will skip ahead to find the action.