You may think of descriptive writing as the flowery descriptive stuff that you skip over when reading a novel, although many an author and reader enjoy that type of writing too. But the descriptive writing that we are talking about here is the kind that makes a reader “feel” the story as if they were part of a scene or knew someone just like the one described in a scene or narrative.
Good description is not an easy thing to accomplish in writing, but if you want to have a story that readers can’t put down because they lost themselves in it and didn’t find their way out until they’d finished it, you’ll find that learning to write great descriptive stories is well worth your time.
Descriptive Writing is a Key Element of Novel Writing
Entrancing readers with stories that keep moving involves creating believable, vivid portrayals of people, places, actions, and events. Descriptive writing isn’t separate from storytelling; it is a variety of techniques, which are combined to make a story.
You may speed through a rough first draft of your story and not pay much attention to details, but after that glorious rush of having gotten your story on paper, you must go back to it and consciously review the descriptions of characters, scenes, etc. You will look at such things as:
- Are my details correct – do the details reflect the true storyline or character traits?
- Did I use the best point of view – which character can best describe what’s happening?
- Would a scene work better as a narrative or with dialogue?
- Did I overdo description on a relatively unimportant piece of the story – like describing a table in the corner?
- Is the writing style too ornate or too plain – or have I achieved a nice balance?
Good descriptive writing does not just naturally flow from your pen; it must be worked at and reworked. Practiced. Learning about descriptive writing is truly about learning the “craft” of writing. All writers, of all experience levels, must purposefully and consciously apply the techniques and details of description.
Novel Writing Tips: Understanding descriptive technique is critical to creating rich images in the minds of your readers and for turning a novel from an account of something into a description of something.
Descriptive Writing is Much about the Details
A descriptive detail is a phrase, image or word that helps a reader “see”. Sometimes the details are told and sometimes they are shown. For example, if you write, “Lexa is happy”, that tells the reader something about Lexa. But if you write about the sparkle in her eyes, the dimples that appear with her smile or how she jumps up and down and claps her hands, a reader can envision that scene. They’ve seen this before, in somebody. The enhanced description calls to mind somebody who’s acted in just this way and they were definitely happy.
The point is to not just say that someone is happy, sad, angry, nervous, etc., but to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the scene by imagining (with the help of your descriptive writing) exactly those things. For example:
- Sad – “The corners of her mouth had sagged long enough to make you wonder if she would ever smile Would her jowls ever be able to spring back?”
- Angry – “Man, his eyes were black, wild, shiny – and pointed at me.”
- Nervous – “Her blue eyes glistened with tears as she stared into the clamoring audience without seeing them, knowing the judges would pick someone else.”
The Sensory Details of Descriptive Writing
While writing the first draft of your novel you may find you relied heavily on visual descriptions and didn’t take time to incorporate the other four senses: touch, taste, smell, and sound. This is typical. So, your second draft is the perfect time to go back through your story and bring the scenes to life. What scent is in the air? What does the blood from a character’s cut lip taste like? Are the salty waves crashing and spraying, automobiles racing by, are the trees rustling against the house, does the rain coming down on the skylight sound like popcorn popping?
Sensory details are:
While most of your story will be written using nouns and verbs, sometimes properly placed adverbs and adjectives are needed as well. The trick is not to blanket your story with too many superfluous words. Leave some imagining up to the reader, they can fill in the blanks. Readers will appreciate a story that runs on good solid descriptions that conjure up their own images of emotion and life. That’s how you pull a reader into the story and keep them there.
Descriptive Writing Using Similes and Metaphors
Some writers will tell you that the strong imagery of similes and metaphors is the lifeblood of descriptive fiction.
- A simile is a figure of speech that compares one thing to another and typically begins with like or as. For example, “Johnny’s eyes are as blue as the sky.”
- A metaphor is a comparison that represents a certain character or situation. It’s something used to represent another. For example, “Pearl walked with bird-like movements.”
While these are both good descriptive writing tools, overusing them weighs down the story. I find this particularly so with over-used and poorly written similes. Make sure your similes make sense!
Sometimes a writer will weave a metaphor throughout the body of a story. That’s called a “central metaphor”. For example, in a story where a woman has a missing child, it may be raining throughout the story as a representation of the dismal days the woman is experiencing.
Much More to Descriptive Writing
These are examples of descriptive writing, but they’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg in terms of writing scenes that will be most meaningful to your readers. It takes practice to get it right!
To figure out where you might need better descriptive writing in a particular scene or for a particular character, keep in mind what your story is really about, what human understanding can be interjected, what will create an emotional image for your readers, and write the detailed descriptions accordingly.
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Please leave a comment on how you handle descriptive writing. What kind of issues have you run into with description? Have you created some awesome similes or metaphors? I’d love to hear from you, and I always respond. Let’s get a conversation going!