How to Write Effective Description - Part 1

It’s one of those questions writers think about all the time. How do you actually make description effective? And how do you know that it’s effective? Can it be defined?

Firstly, description is the thing that brings any story to life, so without it, or enough of it, the structure of the story will fail. Every story needs description. It’s a fundamental element that allows the reader to share the story, and therefore it’s incredibly important. It should convey more to the reader than just the setting or a bit of action; description also conveys emotion, hidden nuances and colourful embellishments. 

Imagine one of your favourite books without description. How dramatically would it affect the story?  Would it still allow you to immerse yourself in that fictional world? Does it stimulate your imagination? The answer is no, it wouldn’t. It would simply be a book devoid of anything but dialogue and narrative.

By describing a scene, an event, a character, you are bringing the story to life.

Every writer wants to be able to create effective description, the kind that lifts the reader from reality and transports them to the fictional world, where sounds and colours and textures breathe life into a scene.

But how do you make it effective?

To make description effective, it needs to have an effect on the reader, it needs to make an impact, and so if it is flat or boring and uninspiring, then reading can be a laborious affair. Boring description is indicative of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which is one of the most common mistakes writers make. 

Description is about visualising the story for the reader – without it, the reader won’t be able to use their imagination and enter the fictional universe. They need you, the writer, to paint them a picture so that they virtually see the colours, hear the sounds and imagine being the hero.

Every writer will convey description quite differently, but it is how visual and rich that description is that will help to transport the reader right into the heart of the story. This is why main description should show, rather than ‘tell’. By main description, I mean the important scenes – dramatic, action or emotional scenes – rather than less important narrative, which doesn’t need much exposition.

With key scenes in a novel, it’s vital to show the reader, to allow them to share the story and the emotions and reactions, to stimulate them.

Effective description needs the following:
  • Sensory details
  • Visual details
  • Emotional detail

Sensory Detail

Sensory details play a major part in description. The senses offer a distinctive insight for the reader. They may not be able to physically smell something, or actually be part of the action, they can’t physically touch or taste or hear anything, but by giving them richly layered details, they will use their imagination quite effectively in order to see, touch, hear, taste and feel. 

Description relies on the writer to evoke the senses, for example, the following paragraph contains some narrative, but little by way of description:

Distorted reflections shimmered from corners. Bare concrete sucked the light from the corridor as Danny moved forward, each footstep an empty echo. He turned a corner and focused on the thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway. A shadow moved…

There is nothing wrong with the narrative, but it lacks any depth and has no atmosphere. It is telling the reader, not showing. Now compare the same paragraph with the sensory details:

Distorted reflections shimmered from corners, as though mocked by the breeze. A line of dangling light bulbs flickered in tandem. Bare concrete, cold like ice sheets, sucked the dim light from the narrow corridor as Danny parted the darkness and hunched forward, each footstep an empty echo that reverberated long after his presence had drifted into the shifting umbra. He turned a corner and focused on the thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway. The light wavered momentarily; a shadow moved...

You can see how these details lift the narrative and transform it into description, the kind that fires the imagination of your reader and helps them build a mental picture in their mind. It provides some atmosphere and tone and it gives the narrative depth.

Visual Detail

It’s not just the senses that help form effective description, it is the visual details that you present to the reader that helps them imagine, it helps them perceive the setting and place and objects and other characters. It helps provide depth and layers to the story.

Writers don’t always understand the importance of making description visual, which is why many self published books by first time authors lack even the most fundamental detail.

A good novel needs description.

Emotional Detail

Emotion and the ability to move your reader, is a driving force within fiction.  A book without emotion isn’t much of a book. If you describe emotions, or you layer the narrative with subtle emotional references, then you create a richer reading experience, for example:

A thousand hollow, alabaster faces stared out from beyond the wire. Sunken eyes and lost expressions filled the heavy atmosphere. The sullen patter of rain spiralled from a slate laden sky.

Ribs pushed through taut, parched skin. Fingers clung to the fence like broken claws.  Desperation bled from grey cadaver skin; men, woman and children, stripped of clothes and dignity, stood crushed together, holding each other up. The air stank of misery. Fear stalked the muddy fields and stifled the birds. In just under an hour, they would all be dead; life stolen by poisonous gas.

And the ovens burned, ready.

This example not only uses visual and sensory stimulus, but it also makes use of metaphor, it makes the reader think because it focuses on the emotional impact. 

It contains many of the elements needed to make description come alive.

As with all elements of writing, there is a balance. Description isn’t all about making sure every paragraph is jammed with wonderful descriptive passages, because it’s easy to overdo it and turn it into “purple prose”. On the whole, a writer should instinctively know when to add those extra elements and when to leave it fairly simple. That comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you become capable of writing intuitively.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how choice of words and the right details make description effective.
Next week: How to write effective description Part 2


  1. I've always had a problem with "Show; don't tell." I can never find the right words to show instead of tell. Good advice none the less!

  2. Hi Danielle,

    Showing does exactly what it says on the tin - in other words, with important scenes, add a little more description, use the senses, give the reader colours and sounds.

    As Anton Chekhov said: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass..."

    In other words, instead of saying 'the moon is shining', you show the reader, for example: 'The glint of a pale moon shimmered across broken glass and cast fragmented reflections...'

    The key words here are 'glint', 'pale', 'shimmered' and 'fragmented reflections'. Together they show rather than tell. And if you are stuck for the right words, you look up alternatives in a Thesaurus. That's what I did as a kid, I chose a word, then I looked up a better word to use and not only my vocabulary increased, but my ability to choose the right descriptive words.

    Hope that helps!


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