Breathing Life into Description

Description is description, right?

That depends on a writer’s perspective and how much the writer wants to invest in it. 

Previous articles have looked at how important description is in any story, and why it’s needed, but what separates ordinary description from the kind that leaps from the page and gets writers noticed by editors and agents?

The answer to that depends how a writer breathes life into description. Without doubt, description is one of the most important aspects required in fiction writing, and how a writer handles it makes all the difference to how good that description is.

The thing with description is that sometimes it can be flat an uninspiring, not because something is particularly badly written, but because instead the author hasn’t really bothered with it.  This can make reading a laborious affair. 

And if it is boring and unexciting, then this is indicative of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which is one of the most common attributes to dreary, lacklustre description.  In truth, we’ve all been guilty of writing flat description at some point or another.

As we grow in confidence with our writing, however, so too should our ability to visualise the story for the reader in a completely unique, expressive and exciting way.

Every writer has a distinctive writing ‘voice’; therefore each writer will convey description quite differently, but it is how visual and rich that description is that could not only help a writer’s chances of publication, but also help to transport the reader right into the heart of the story.

Telling versus Showing

One of the main problems with description is the way writers deal with exposition.  More often than not they tell rather than show the reader.  This is fine for the less important scenes, but with key scenes – the dramatic, emotional and action type scenes, it’s vital to show the reader, to allow them to share the story and the emotions and reactions rather than just read about it.  Description for these key scenes should be animated enough to stimulate the reader, rather than bore them.

There are some writers who still don’t understand the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ and continue to write unexciting, simplistic description.  That’s fine if they want to write the mundane.  But for writers who want to set the bar higher, showing the reader through evocative, visual description reaps its own rewards.

How is it done?

There are several elements to this.  The writer needs to be aware of and understand these elements closely to create the kind of description that brings a story to life; the kind that lifts it from the page and transports the reader into the fictional world.

Description, and how writers convey it, is a very unique thing; we all do it differently, but that doesn’t mean the important elements that make up good description should be ignored.

Think of it this way – your reader cannot see, taste, touch, smell or hear anything.  As the writer, you have to describe things so that they can see, taste, touch, smell and hear everything happening in your story.

You need to be aware of:

·        Sensory details
·        Visual details
·        Emotional details

Sensory details are woefully ignored by many writers, but they can play a major part in description.  The five senses offer a distinctive insight for the reader. They may not be able to physically smell something, or actually see, touch or taste or hear anything, but by giving them richly layered hints, they will use their imagination quite effectively. 

A writer can make the reader imagine the smells and the tastes, they will visualise details, they will feel the touch of the breeze, or a hand on the skin, or the texture of something, and they will hear the sounds described.

For example, the following excerpts are taken from my short story ‘A Stain on the Heart’ (© 2012, anthology ‘One Hour’, published by Static Movement). 

‘A breeze prowled across the muddy forest, left tainted by a miserable, doleful downpour, and now it smelled stagnant beneath the lingering scent of burnt wood and flesh.’

Prowled, miserable, doleful, stagnant and burnt umber are the key words here.  They are key words for a good reason.  Imagine the sentence without them.

Visual detail, while very similar to the senses, covers the way the reader perceives the description of setting and place and objects, and how the writer has visualised the necessary details to make the story believable, for instance:

As a sliver of dawn light inked across the sky and reflected from the snow-capped forest of the Ardennes, the devastation slowly emerged and soaked Freddie’s mind with sounds and images he would rather forget. The dull light grazed across the scene. He saw upturned mounds of earth, fallen trees and dark scars carved through sullied snow. But it was the frosty, soulless landscape littered with helmets and boots, fragments of uniforms and bits of men that made his stomach drop to his feet.

One other thing that description does – which is quite important – is to relay emotion.  Emotion and the ability to move your reader, is a driving force within fiction. The following excerpt is from ‘Voices’ (© 2012 anthology, ‘Last Night’, published by Static Movement).  The first example is telling the reader. 

What had begun towards the evening had continued as the sunlight sank behind the trees, leaving sunlight gleaming between the branches, which seemed lost within the confines of the camp, and just as lost on the confused and hungry people that filed from the cattle trains.

He thought about the bodies from the showers, lives stolen, their eyes lifeless and hands frozen.

This is fairly flat and uninspiring.  It doesn’t say much to the reader and it certainly doesn’t do anything other than tell the reader.  And it certainly doesn’t show anything.  Now the original excerpt, which shows the reader:

What had begun in earnest towards the evening had continued as the sunlight sank behind the thick line of pines that veiled them, leaving beautiful saffron-tinted rivulets gleaming between the branches. Such beauty seemed lost within the cold, barren confines of the camp, and just as lost on the deathly-grey faces that filed from the cattle trains – confused, hungry and riddled with exhaustion.

He thought about the fresh mounds of flesh dragged from the showers, lives stolen, their eyes lifeless and yet brimming with riven reflections of their last terrible moments, their hands frozen into gnarled claws.

This shows rather than tells.  It uses visual and sensory stimulus, it references colour as a metaphor, it stands out and it makes the reader think because it focuses on the emotional impact.  It contains many of the elements needed to make description come alive.

Description is description, but it’s nothing unless a writer breathes life into it.

Next week: How to tease the reader.


  1. Having read this I'm hopeful it will help me breath life into my otherwise comatose writing.

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