How being subtle can improve your descriptions

The art of good description is sometimes about intentionally holding back from your reader.

Have you ever watched horror movies where the monster or creature is never revealed until the very end? You only get hints or shadows or brief glimpses. But if you compare them to movies where you see the monster from the outset, while they might be entertaining, you get two very different results.

The reason that not seeing the monster works so well is that, psychologically, it deprives the visual part of your brain from what is, so consequently, your brain has to fill in the gaps, it has to build up a picture of what the monster looks like. It also helps focus tension and atmosphere, precisely because you don’t know who or what it is.

Imagine the same technique in fiction. By not revealing too much to the reader, you not only create a sense of tension and atmosphere, but you also keep them guessing. And by doing that you keep them reading, because physiologically, they have to fill in the gaps.

It is true when they say less is more. Simply by hinting at something within your narrative will fire your reader’s imagination, rather than a reliance of revealing everything in one great chunk of text. Hold back a little; make the readers draw their own thoughts.

Subtlety can actually improve your descriptions, so try not to over-describe. Give the reader something to work with – it could be a word prompt, a colour or a hint of something.

This is a flash fiction piece, called Prelude, a good example of how description can hint at something without going into all the details:

The shape of deception toiled in the strained expression in the window.

The silence of the moment dragged across her nerves, tore a hole in her senses as the sticky residue of rationality dribbled from an overloaded mind. 

Behind her, a figure lay beneath the covers, untainted by such burdens.  

Emotions bubbled beneath the surface. They neither made sense nor soothed, but they forged a path through her resolve. She’d given in to temptation. 

Cold neon reflections flashed across her face. 

Her wedding ring glinted. Guilt clung to her reverie.  

And still the blade in her hand sang to her.

Here there is a build up to what will happen, but I wrote it in such a way that the descriptions speak for themselves without being overbearing and too full on. 

The key words in the first line are ‘deception toiled’. This tells the reader what is on the character’s mind, again without writing seven or eight sentences going into the finer details. A few well-chosen words do all the work for me.

The key words in the second sentence are ‘silence...dragged across her nerves.’ What does this convey? What can you hear in that? And ‘sticky residue of rationality’ prompts the reader to imagine the character’s thoughts and feelings.

What else do the descriptions tell you? What can you imagine from them? What colours might you see? What might you hear?

The closing line implies what might happen, what she will do, all without going into too much detail. There is just enough there to stir the reader’s imagination, to fill in the visual and sensory gaps for themselves.

What I did with Prelude is deprive the reader of many visual aspects – forcing them to imagine more of the story.

Every writer’s mantra is to ‘show, don’t tell’, and it works the same way to tease your reader. Show them, don’t tell them outright. Plant clues, foreshadow, drop hints through narrative or dialogue. Let them fill in the gaps and let their imagination do the work.

Here’s a simple example:

Josh walked slowly to the car, his mind heavy. He opened the door and climbed in, thought about what had happened. He started the car, clicked his seat belt in place, and wondered how he was going to tell his wife, Melissa, that he had been made redundant. He gripped the wheel and drove away with a heavy heart...

Compare that with:

Thoughts fizzled as Josh walked to the car. A cold realisation trickled into his veins. Redundant. Reduced to nothing. The serrated fear of what he would tell his wife troubled him and shame crept in as he drove away...

The reader doesn’t need to know every single movement Josh made, so the descriptions of getting into the car and starting it and putting the seat belt on are irrelevant. What are important are Josh’s feelings and thoughts. He feels as though he is nothing, he feels ashamed. It’s up to the reader to decipher what that means to Josh and his wife, because the hint has been planted.

This style of description also forms part of the ‘moving the story forward’ idea. In a few sentences we know what’s happened to him and the hint about what his wife will say when he returns home moves the story forward to that moment.

Subtle hints work well in dialogue, too, and will help you move the story forward. Read your favourite authors to see how they achieve it.

Remember the following in your descriptions:

· Prompts – visual, sound, colour, shapes,  etc
· Hints – Thoughts, feelings, emotions, events etc.
· Foreshadowing
· Deliberately deprive the reader

Achieving good description isn’t always about describing everything in minute detail. As a writer, you are playing a psychological game with your reader. How good you are with that will depend on how good your description is.

Next week: Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters.


  1. Good advice here, will read again later. Thanks.

  2. I don't think I'd use glinted and guilt so close together - gilt?

  3. Great advice, really helped me over a wall this morning, many thanks.

  4. Thank you all for stopping by, I'm pleased the advice helps.

    @ anonymous: It's all about a personal choice of words.

  5. I agree with most of what is said, but still some of the writing that is supposed to be the "correct" way to do description sounds a bit pretentious or overbearing.

    1. I agree, some does, some doesn't. It really depends how well crafted and experienced the writer is for it not to become pretentious or overbearing. It's no mean feat.


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