By Firn Hyde
There’s nothing more breathtaking than a well-written piece of description, and few things more difficult to write well. Many new writers find themselves getting bogged down in paragraphs of description and still feel like they’re not getting the image in their heads onto the page. Here are seven ways to turn your description from boring to brilliant.
1. Engage the senses
Sensory language is one of the most powerful weapons in your descriptive writing arsenal. Many of us make the mistake of writing only about what we see, but to bring your reader into the moment, use the other senses too. Smell is a particularly useful sense, as many people have deep emotional connections to scents. There’s no need to engage all five senses in every descriptive passage, but it’s always useful to use at least two or three.
2. Consider point of view
Character has a profound effect on description. A hard-bitten Chicago cop and a farm boy from Wisconsin might see the same stretch of hillside, but they won’t feel the same way about it. Similarly, the same girl will describe her boyfriend in a different way to her boss. If something doesn’t affect your character, it’s not worth describing. Your character’s thoughts and feelings are an integral part of your descriptions.
3. Add action
To break up long paragraphs of description, as well as bringing people, objects and settings to life, have your character engage with the subject. It’s seldom suitable for your character to simply stand and gape at something, unless they’re truly awestruck. Have your character touch and interact with what you’re describing. This also provides more opportunity for sensory language.
4. Use comparisons
Comparisons – metaphors and similes – can make or break your description. Cliched comparisons make a passage feel weak and tired, where a new, fresh comparison draws the reader in and helps them to see even a familiar object in a new light. Comparing a smooth lake to a mirror is dull; comparing it to a sword’s blade conveys stronger imagery and emotion.
Comparisons also don’t have to be poetic or flowery to be effective. They can convey more than beauty: with the correct word choice, comparisons can be a vessel for almost anything.
5. Focus on word choice
Connotation is a vital part of creating emotion in your description. “Shine” and “glint” have similar meanings, but one feels more gentle than the other. You could compare the gray eyes of a character to a rain cloud or to a piece of metal; both conjure different images. Fancy long words aren’t always the answer, either. Keeping in mind the atmosphere that you want to create, you can use simple words to great effect.
6. Keep it short
Even the best description will eventually bore the average novel reader after a paragraph or two. Using these techniques to make your description punchy, you can create an atmosphere and paint a picture in the reader’s mind in only a few sentences. Trust your reader’s imagination, too: in many cases, it’s not a bad idea to let the reader fill in the blanks.
This is particularly applicable to fast-paced scenes. Description can take up a lot of space in a passage where two characters are interacting as they fall slowly in love, where it should be kept to a minimum in a fight scene.
7. Stay true to your voice
Everyone sounds a little different, and that’s not a problem – that’s your superpower. Description is one of the best times to let your voice shine. The world needs it, after all.
Firn Hyde is a writer, horsewoman, and daughter of the King. She lives on a horse farm in South Africa with three dogs, two pigs, too many horses, and a long-suffering man. After writing all her life, she ventured into ghostwriting in early 2018, and she never looked back. She now ghostwrites full-time and works on her own novel in ten minutes a day.