5 Ways to Liven Up a Description

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

This week, we’re talking about description and detail.  On Monday we established that Description Equals Does Not Equal Exposition.  Today we’re going to discuss how to make those descriptive passages more powerful.  Here are five tips, plus a writing exercise at the end to help you put them into action.

1) Engage the Five Senses.

A writer friend of mine always kept a post-it note stuck to the edge of his computer screen.  On it were five words: “See, hear, feel, smell, taste.”  Every time he wrote a description, it would remind him to use the five senses.

Most of the time, visual details take the lead with sounds in a very distant second place.  But what if we focus only on texture?  Or on that oft-neglected sense of smell?  Suddenly a dull description comes to life because we’re approaching it from a different sensory angle.  Go here to learn more about Writing Through the Senses.

2) Use Vibrant Language.

We often hear writing teachers tell us to avoid adverbs, but rarely do they tell us why.  The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs (or with their cousins the adjectives).  The trouble is, an abundance of adverbs and adjectives is usually a symptom of dull language.  Use a vibrant verb or a specific noun and your need for an adverb or adjective often disappears.

Example:  Compare these sentences.

He walked heavily down the hall.
He lumbered down the hall.
He stomped down the hall.

Notice that in the second and third sentences, we simply replaced “walked heavily” with either “lumbered” or “stomped.”  The trouble with “walked heavily” is that it doesn’t give us a clear picture of the action.  Either “lumbered” or “stomped” could replace it, but we can’t tell which one the writer really means.  While “lumbered” and “stomped” are similar in idea, there are nuanced differences between the two words that matter in conveying the mood of the sentence.  The adverb “heavily” doesn’t convey that mood, it simply props up a boring verb.

When I teach writing workshops, I encourage students to work primarily with nouns and verbs.  These are the meat-and-potatoes of your writing.  Adverbs and adjectives are like gravy, they’re great in moderate doses, but you can’t make a meal out of just that.  If you find yourself using too many adverbs and adjectives, go back and look at your nouns and verbs.  See if you can make them more vibrant and chances are, you’ll find that you won’t need most of those adverbs and adjectives after all.

3) Be Specific.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a trick he learned in journalism that applies well to literature: be specific.

If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.
~Gabriela Garcia Marquez

Specific details can make even the most unrealistic descriptions appear real.  When you describe fantastic events in minute detail, you can give them their own flavor of reality.  When crafting a description, be specific.

4) Less is More.

When it comes to giving details to your reader, it’s not always wise to share everything.  Think of your reader as being someone who’s on a need-to-know basis with the story; there are some things that the reader just does not need to know.  In fact, giving too much information, too many details, can cheapen the value of each individual one.  It’s a form of descriptive inflation; the more details you give, the less impact each detail will make.  Instead of overwhelming your reader with an abundance of detail, limit yourself to a select one or two, details that your readers can “hang their hat on.”  Give your readers one or two vibrant details and leave the rest to their imaginations.  Trust the reader to be intelligent and fill in those blanks.

5) Use Description to Show Emotion.

This is perhaps the most complex and sophisticated part of crafting a description, because it involves getting into the character’s head.  Depending on the character’s state of mind, she will see her surroundings differently.  If your character has just fallen in love, she will see everything through “rose-colored glasses,” as it were, while if your character is depressed, darkness will cloud how she views the world.

Exercise:  Choose a setting (a room in your character’s home or workplace).  Have the character enter that space.  Describe what he or she sees in your character’s point of view.  Here’s the catch: you will write this description three different ways.  For each part of this exercise, imagine the character is walking into that setting after a major life event.

  • The first version takes place just after the character has met the love of his or her life.
  • The second is after the character has suffered a significant loss.
  • The third is just after the character has been made to fear for his or hear life.

What aspects of the setting will the character observe or fixate on in each situation?  Remember, the setting itself has not changed, in terms of physical description everything is exactly the same.  What has changed is how the character views this setting.  This last aspect of crafting descriptions takes some time to master, but with practice it can become a powerful tool, allowing you as the writer to show your character’s emotions by how he or she sees the world.

  • Gabriela, that image is creepy! It looks like a close up of an insect head.

    That aside, I love these tips. Re: #3, one of my critique partners is writing a book set in the 12th century with a proto-botanist protagonist. My friend uses concise, specific descriptions of plants to make her world come alive. More than anything else in her writing, it’s the thing grounding her world.

    Tip 5 is one I’ve never heard before and will start playing with.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Gabriela

    Ha ha! Yeah, it is a weird image, isn’t it? I chose it because sometimes when you zoom in to one tiny detail, an ordinary object (like a pencil) can appear like sometime much more irksome. The power of description in action!

    That’s so awesome about your critique partner’s command of description. I find that I often learn best by watching my critique partners doing awesome things in their writing and trying to figure out how they do it. A nice exercise is to borrow a critique partner’s technique and see what happens when you apply it to your own writing. Even if you don’t use the style in your final piece, it can be a great way to practice and learn the technique.

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  • I recall doing #5 in my senior year English class. I loved that teacher. The whole year was basically a creative writing course. She gave us a one-sentence intro and then had us fill one side of notebook paper with a “dark” description and the other side with a “light” description. We used the exact same intro for both POVs.

    #1 is so under-utilized. I’ve very sensitive to smells, so that’s a huge parts of my daily experience. It always gets me when a paranormal story featuring werewolves has almost zero mention of smells. Canines live by their noses! We sometimes throw in a token blind character, but we don’t often shift to their POV. Try walking around the house blindfolded for a few hours, or watch the M*A*S*H where Hawkeye is temporarily blinded and learn what he discovers.

  • Thank you for the tips. I tend to focus on the plot and the characters and I don’t take time to describe everything as drawn out as i could, so I need tips like these to help me become more verbose. I’mt a cut to the point type of person, so meandering about setting or how she felt or who looked like what, isn’t on the forefront of my mind.

    • Gabriela

      Remember that with description, less is usually more. Most of the time, being “to the point” is great (after all, meandering about setting and appearance can get boring both for the reader and also for the writer.) Give your reader that one true detail or image to “hang their hat on” and that’s usually plenty.

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