Descriptions are an important part of narrative writing, but why should you care about them at all? Description adds “color” to your world. In this article, I’ll tell you how description works, why it’s important, and how to do it well.
Specific Details About a Character
Description is important in writing because it provides readers with significant details about a character, setting, or event in a story. Character description is a crucial part of your writing style.
When you’re trying to write something like a scene, you should use the saying “show, don’t tell.”
This means that rather than telling readers what your character did, you show them what he or she did by describing in specific detail the actions he or she takes. This may sound like a lot of work at first, but if you practice it regularly and it becomes second nature to you as a writer, it’ll become second nature to your readers as well.
Brings Stories to Life
Effective description brings stories and novels to life. It’s a core part of your writing process.
Whether you’re writing memoirs, historical novels, or how-to books, descriptions help readers understand and empathize with your story. They also help them see what’s happening in their mind’s eye and feel something about it.
Let’s say you want to write about a day you went fishing with your dad years ago. You might remember the feeling of the taut fishing line as you reeled in your catch, the sun shining on your arms and shoulders, and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore of the lake where you fished. You might even remember the taste of the fried fish in the evening!
The more sensory impressions you provide readers – whether or not they’ve had experiences similar to yours – the better they can imagine what happened: not just “the day I went fishing with Dad, but “the warm May morning when my father took me fishing for the first time.
Description is used across all genres of writing.
Descriptive writing is the art of painting a picture with descriptive words. It’s a compelling way to describe something so that others can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what you’re writing about. Without descriptive writing, your story or article would be boring to read and difficult to engage your audience.
When Should You Use It?
Descriptive text is used in all genres of writing. For example:
- In fiction writing, descriptive language helps readers form a more detailed picture of the characters, which helps them feel empathy for and connect with the character.
- In nonfiction texts, descriptions can be used to provide information in a format that’s easy for readers to understand, such as describing how to make something step by step or describing diagrams and data in an easy-to-digest format.
- Descriptions are also used in poems when authors want readers to feel connected to their poem through the senses.
The Writer’s Purpose
Description depends on the writer’s purpose and point of view.
Purpose is the reason for good writing; it may be to inform, persuade, entertain, etc. This purpose should be clear to the reader!
Purpose should not be confused with perspective (point of view).
Point of view refers to how much you reveal about yourself as the narrator and how much you reveal about other characters in your story. It can be first person (me), second person (you), or third person (he/she/it).
Point of view can also be limited or omniscient. Limited point of view means that the narrator only lets us see what a character sees, hears, feels, etc. Omniscient point of view allows the narrator to tell us everything about every character and setting – he or she knows everything!
Grounds Readers in the Setting
Just as good description can bring a character to life, it can also create a sense of place.
It’s important to craft the setting of your story effectively. A well-crafted and engaging setting gives your readers a world to immerse themselves in and provides clues to the characters’ motivations. The way you craft your setting can affect the mood and sense of urgency, as well as the reader’s overall perception of the story.
Setting provides context for a story:
- What time is it set in?
- Where does it take place?
- What’re the weather conditions?
- How do these factors affect your characters’ actions?
It helps us understand not only how they behave, but why they behave the way they do – if there’s no context to describe their surroundings, how can we know if they’re behaving that way because they’re bored or lonely or misunderstood by those around them, etc.?
Descriptive texts draw the reader into the environment and make them feel a part of it, rather than an outside observer looking through a window at the scenes in other people’s lives. So we can better understand where others are coming from, and when something bad happens, we know exactly why someone is reacting angrily, instead of just being confused because we don’t know details about how those events happened.
It’s Not Only the Setting
Many writers get so caught up in the setting that they completely forget to describe their characters.
We’re not saying you’ve to describe everything about your characters. You don’t have to tell readers what toothpaste the protagonist uses or how often he shaves unless it’s relevant to the story. But there are important details that should be mentioned, such as hair color and eye color (unless everyone in your fictional world has the same eye color), a bit about how your character looks and moves, etc.
This is especially true if you’re writing in the third person.
The reader will also want to know what your character is thinking and feeling and what’s going on around him. If he’s walking through a dense forest with an ax over his shoulder and sounds can be heard around him, we want to know that he’s afraid of those sounds and thinks something bad is coming.
An often overlooked method is emotional description.
Physical Description. This is where you describe what the person looks like: Height and weight, hair color, cut and length, eye color, facial features (nose, mouth, chin), build (curvy or muscular), posture, skin color, texture and pigmentation (freckles, scars, etc.). These descriptions will change over the course of your story as your protagonist develops.
Emotional Description. This describes how your characters feel at different points in the story.
- What’s going on in their heads?
- Do they love something?
- Do they hate something?
- Are they angry or afraid?
- You can use feeling words to describe your characters’ feelings: content, nervous, hopeful, etc., or you can use strong action verbs like stalked and lunged to convey these feelings.
Texture and Detail
Good description adds texture and detail to your writing.
I know you’ve heard about texture a lot. But it’s an important part of the description, so I’ll mention it again: texture is another word for detail or sensory information.
For example, a work of art can be very textured because it contains a lot of detail and visual information.
- A piano might make a loud, booming sound when struck with a hammer; when you play the same note on a trumpet, the sound is brighter, higher, and sharper.
- Texture can also be used to describe smells: Something sweet smells soft and fluffy; something sharp and pungent smells jagged and prickly.
It Isn’t Always Straightforward
Descriptive language can be subtle or obvious.
Descriptive language isn’t just used to paint a picture of an object or person. It helps convey tone, adds color and vibrancy to your text, and can even affect mood. Again, descriptive language is important because it helps you see what’s happening in your mind’s eye, which makes your text even more compelling.
When you use descriptive language, remember that it doesn’t always have to be direct. Descriptive language can be subtle or obvious. It can be literal or figurative. It can be sensual or abstract. And it can be objective or subjective.
Vivid Description Adds to the Mood of a Piece
The reason descriptions are so important in writing is that they help your readers engage all of their senses.
When you describe what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, tastes like, and feels like, your reader can perceive the scene as if they were experiencing it from the inside. If you describe your setting and characters well enough, your readers may not even feel like they’re reading a novel! They’ll feel like they’re actually witnessing everything that happens in the story.
This is why descriptive writing can be so effective: It allows your readers to be fully immersed in the world you’ve created for them as they read.
It’s All in the Mind
Description is used to help create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
When readers get a clear picture of what’s happening, they’re more involved in the story and feel connected to it. It also creates a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. When you write, you should try to include as many details as possible so that your readers can imagine everything that’s going on.
Also, description helps your readers get to know your characters by showing how they look, feel, act, talk, react and think in different situations. This makes it easier for them to identify with your characters and understand them better.
Visualize Action as It Unfolds
It helps readers visualize what’s happening as it unfolds, vividly and concretely. You can use vivid sensory detail to help readers picture what’s happening.
For example, a good description of your character’s shoe purchase can give readers a sense of the shoes and the feelings they evoke when they’re tried on:
The salesperson brought a pair of light blue high-tops with a swollen tongue and thick sole. Robert slipped into the shoes and bent down to lace them up. His toes pressed against the end, but otherwise, they were comfortable enough. He stood up and walked around the store in them. They carried him with every step as if he were walking in a dream or something. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw someone else there – someone who wasn’t just a passable basketball player; someone who could absolutely dominate if he’d those shoes.
Beyond the Literal
Figurative language is a literary device used to convey meaning beyond the literal. For example, if you said “The sky was pitch black”, you’re literally describing the color of the sky, but you might also use the phrase “black as a black ace of spades” to describe its darkness.
The point is, that figurative language goes beyond what the word “black” can describe and reduces it to something a little more powerful.
Using the phrase “black as a black ace of spades” gives you an idea of how dark the sky was, and evokes more emotion than just saying “the sky was black”. That extra detail makes the language more interesting and adds depth to your description.
Think about using a literary device in your work:
Details, Details, Details
A good description is more than just translating what you see outside your window into words on a page. It’s about evoking a sensory experience, and you do that best when you use all five senses.
Describe the appearance of your characters, but also describe:
- their feelings (internal or external),
- their actions,
- and their thoughts.
Show what’s happening in the scene by describing the setting, weather conditions, and perhaps your character’s surroundings. Describe the clothes they’re wearing, but also pay attention to how they move or gesture when they speak – how they react to different feelings, people, or situations.
In creative writing, and indeed in creative nonfiction, there are no limits to your imagination.
With good descriptive writing, you can transport your readers to another world. You can capture a moment or a character’s emotions in a way that mere words can’t describe.
If you’re writing a description to convey a particular feeling or mood, it’s important to use concise language to convey that emotion to the reader as clearly and powerfully as possible.
Try using sensory detail whenever possible. For example, if you’re writing about a beach, you can include details like the sound of the waves crashing on the shore or the way the sun reflects on the sand. Using descriptive detail is a great way to get your readers to feel what you’ve described.