How to write description

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an blog post on how to write description…

I haven’t written a word of fiction since Grade 10, when I was required to produce a short story for English class. Nevertheless, I’m an avid reader of fiction. And I’m an experienced enough (non-fiction) writer to know good advice when I see it.

A recent post by writer (and former agent) Nathan Bransford falls into the category of excellent advice. Under the headline, “How to write clear physical description,” Branford gives a master class on the whys and hows of descriptive writing.

I like the way he begins his post with what he describes as “a clunky bit of physical description” (that he made up himself), and gradually smooths it out demonstrating his own pointers for writing clear physical description.

His 10 core pieces of advice? Here they are:

  • Establish where the characters are: begin by introducing not just the characters but also the physical space in which they find themselves.
  • Pause the action, describe the setting, then unpause: Understand it’s okay to stop plot development and just describe the setting.
  • Describe characters when they are first introduced: To help your readers, describe characters precisely the first time you mention them.
  • Show where objects are in relation to each other: give a sense of how big the space is and where objects are in relationship to each other.
  • Use individualized gestures: Don’t rely on generic gestures — like sighs, eye rolls, deep breaths, meaningful glances, hearts pounding out of chests, etc. Instead, be more specific.
  • Use precise verbs: Perfectly-chosen verbs will help make a scene more vivid.
  • Appeal to all the senses: Description involves more than sight. It can also include sound, smell, taste and touch.
  • Contextualize who people are from the anchoring perspective: This complex idea reflects point of view. If the book is written from the perspective of character A, readers won’t be able to learn what’s going on in the mind of character B.
  • Weave in the protagonist’s mindset and motivation: When the reader knows what the protagonist is trying to do, the description becomes more interesting and useful.
  • Understand that effective description doesn’t have to go on for pages and pages: Adding more description will, of course, add some length. But it needn’t require an inordinate amount.

If you’re a fiction writer, check out this piece so as to improve your own skills with descriptive writing.


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