5 Tips for Writing Great Descriptions

This month’s post comes from a question I got from one of my email subscribers:

“How do you write description in your novels? Not a character one, surrounding ones. How do you describe the background of the novel?”

Here’s my answer:

I talk at length about writing description in my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (See Chapter 4 “Building Your Story World,” Chapter 16 Setting the Scene, and Chapter 21 “Choosing the Right Details” for the majority of the discussion about description, but it’s peppered throughout), so I’ll just give a brief rundown here. 🙂

Tip #1: Use concrete, sensory details

That means describing, with precision, a detail you can see/hear/touch/taste/smell. Avoid using vague words that are hard to visualize or sense, like “the house was ugly” or “the weather was bad.” Instead, choose a sensory detail (or two) for your descriptions, for example “the house was a wretched shade of salmon pink” or “the wind was blowing I could taste dust in my mouth.”

Tip #2: Try not to over- or under-use descriptions

It’s common for beginning writers to either use no description, or go completely overboard. I give examples of both in my book. While there’s no hard rule about how much description is too little or too much (it depends a lot on the particular story, genre, and the writer’s style), I personally like to include around 4-5 sensory details per page.

The idea is to give the reader a solid sense of where they are without going on and on, making them want to skim over as you carry on for paragraphs about the smell and texture of a doily.

Tip #3: Use more description during important parts of the story

Description draws your readers attention to what you’re describing. Use that to your advantage. If that doily contains a blood stain that’s a pivotal clue in your murder mystery, by all means spend three sentences describing the particular color red of the blood or the weird smell it emits. Where you linger, the reader will linger.

Tip #4: Use description to set the scene

Use more description at the beginning of a new scene, or anytime the location of your story changes. I talk about this in the section on transitions in my book. Summary gets a bad reputation in fiction, but these transitional paragraphs are the perfect time to paint the scene with sensory details about your character’s surroundings.

Tip #5: Pay attention to “camera movement”

One common thing I see in writer’s manuscripts is what I call “jerky camera movement.” Here’s an example:

Jesse pulled into the driveway of the suspect’s mansion around noon. A white, floppy dog barked ferociously in the window. It was a warm, sweltering day. Jesse looked down and realized her shoe was untied. The house had three large columns in front, each wrapped with a gaudy red bow. 

In this example, the “camera” moves from the driveway, to the dog in the window, to the “day,” to Jesse’s shoe, to the outside of the house. If that was your head, looking around the scene, you’d get dizzy pretty fast. Here’s a smoother movement, starting wide and focusing in on Jesse’s untied shoe.

It was a warm, sweltering day. Jesse pulled into the driveway of the suspect’s mansion around noon. The house had three large columns in front, each wrapped with a gaudy red bow. In the window, a white, floppy dog barked ferociously. As Jesse approached the door, she looked down and realized her shoe was untied.

These aren’t perfect examples because I’ve dashed them off just now, but you get the idea 🙂 Try not to make your reader seasick by making them look all over the scene (unless you’re trying to achieve that effect, for example, in a scene where your protagonist is drunk or discombobulated).

Hope this helps!