Description in Writing

painting“Good description is a learned skill. It’s not just a question of how to; it’s a question of how much to.” – Stephen King

Stephen King is absolutely correct that good description is a learned skill. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Words are your paintbrush and it is the only way for your reader to be able to see what you are seeing, to experience what the character is experiencing and to live vicariously through your story.

Remember though that a reader likes to use her own imagination, so use description judiciously. That’s what Stephen King means in the quote above. You don’t want to inundate the poor reader with too much so that it turns them off. They want to visualize the beautiful setting with some hints from you of course. You supply just enough to give the reader a chance to fill in the details, but still take them in the direction you want them to go.

Good description involves:

  • Writing in a sensual manner i.e using your senses. Just describing someone’s physical attributes can make your description sound boring and like an ad placed in the personals.
  • Uses original similes and metaphors, but judiciously. Too many and you risk irritating your reader.
  • Adjectives are necessary and good for description but try to go beyond just telling us thesmile color of someone’s eyes or that they smiled. What sort of smile did they use – like they knew something you didn’t? And eye color – let’s take blue for example – there are so many variations in blue eyes. Use your imagination to tell us what kind of blue eyes they are. One of my other writers described a brown eyes as mocha. I thought that was original ‘cause I hadn’t heard that before.
  • Zero in on physical characterizations that make your character stand out. John Wayne always walked with a swagger; Clark Gable had outsized ears; Jim Morrison oozed sex appeal – you get the drift.
  • See the location through your character’s eyes.
  • Show not tell is what it’s all about and you only learn by doing. Allow the reader to feel the fear that the character feels entering a haunted castle or the wonder that Hansel and Gretel would feel on finding a gingerbread house made of candy.

You might also like these links from Writer’s Digest:

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