The Key to Descriptive Writing - Words and More
Yes, word choice is important in descriptive writing. However, simply inserting a bunch of adjectives into your sentences won't cut it. Check out these 5 tips expert writers use to create vivid descriptions in books, short stories, screenplays, and articles.
What is descriptive writing?
Descriptive writing is a storytelling technique that vividly conveys the setting and character behavior within a scene. It is found in fiction and narrative non-fiction. It often relies on visual imagery to capture a scene, however, evokes the four non-sight senses as well.
A common descriptive writing mistake
Newer writers often make the mistake of loading adjectives into their sentences, thinking it'll make their writing more descriptive.
Though adjectives do describe, alone, they don't pull your reader into your scene. You want your audience to be immersed in the world of your story, to the point where they shut the real world out while reading.
A tactic for accomplishing this is the "show don't tell" method. Essentially, instead of "telling" your reader something in your story has a certain characteristic, "show" that characteristic in action and allow the reader to come to the conclusion it exists.
Excessive adjective use is associated with telling. Showing, on the other hand, draws your reader in the story world because it activates the part of the mind that makes observations. Your reader will begin to feel like an active participant in your story, not someone hearing about it from a distance.
Let's look at two examples and see which you think is better...
Examples of descriptive writing - show vs. tell
Let's assume I want to convey to a reader that a big bowl of soup is hot. Here are two ways I can do that:
Kelly left a big, hot bowl of soup on the kitchen counter.
James walks into the kitchen. A bowl of soup takes up a chunk of the counter. Kelly must've forgotten to clean up after she ate. James grabs it, then yanks his hand away. The tips of his fingers burn.
I feel example B is more descriptive. Notice how the adjectives "big" and "hot" aren't even used? Notice how no adjectives are used at all? Instead, the reader is pulled into the scene and uncovers the intended characteristics through sensory observation.
Check out 5 tips below for leading your reader into the world of your story. For even more advice on creating immersive scenes, check out my online scene writing course.
#1 - Leverage nouns and verbs in descriptive writing
Nouns and verbs are the main ingredients in the "show" method of storytelling. Because they capture physical entities and movement, they lend themselves to visualizations. Examples:
The pitcher hurls the baseball.
The criminal shatters the window.
The hail whacks the pavement.
Opt for words that create specific, concrete images in readers' minds. For instance, John travels down the street isn't as strong as John sprints down the street.
Nouns and verbs can also appeal to the non-sight senses: smell, sound, taste, and touch. For instance, The music booms in her ears or The bullet rips through his flesh.
#2 - Use character reactions in descriptive writing
Character reactions add a human element to your scenes, which helps deepen the connection between a reader and your story.
Let's say I want to get across the idea that a cliff is steep. I can show the reaction of a character observing the steepness to associate it with a feeling - in this case, fear. This human feeling provides depth to the physical description of the cliff. For instance:
Fred inches his head over the cliff for a peek down. If he fell, sudden death. His heart pounding, he takes a step back.
#3 - Use dialogue in descriptive writing
Like character reactions, dialogue features humans. Because of this, it can express feeling, which pumps life into your story.
Do you want to get across the point a character is funny? Don't tell your audience. Show the character saying something funny.
Do you want to convey that a necklace in your story is beautiful? Don't tell your audience. Show a pair of characters discussing the lengths they'd go to just to wear it for a night.
#4 - Avoid adverbs in descriptive writing
Though you should try to phrase descriptive sentences with nouns and verbs, an occasional adjective is okay. For instance, if a car being red plays a role in the plot of your story, feel free to state that the car is red, versus trying to come up with some roundabout way of expressing the color without its name.
Adverbs, on the other hand, should be eliminated from your sentences in the vast majority of cases. Adverbs tend to be extra words that don't add meaning to your writing. You should be able to cut almost all of them without losing the point you're trying to make.
Below, I've made some descriptive points, with an adverb version to the left and a non-adverb version to the right. The non-adverb variations use fewer words, which helps keep your writing lean, while retaining the meaning of the point. Plus, they're more vivid.
#5 - Avoid data dumps in descriptive writing
A data dump occurs when a writer piles a bunch of information about a topic onto the reader at once. These can slow your story, cause the reader to get bored, and pull them out of the world you've created.
Even if you follow the tips above and your descriptive writing is quality, you should avoid going into too much depth on a topic at once.
For example, let's say your main character is from a big city and she just arrives in a small rural town that will serve as the setting for the rest of the story.
You will of course want to capture the essence of this small town. However, you should avoid telling your reader everything about it the moment it's introduced. Instead, release descriptive details about parts of the town as your characters experience them.
As an alternative to informing your audience about the diner, the mill, and the motel in a data dump, describe the diner the first time your main character goes for breakfast. And don't inform your reader about the mill or the motel until they're featured in their own scenes later on.
The same logic holds within a specific scene. Don't offer the reader everything about the diner the moment your character arrives.
Have the audience experience the details as your character does. You can describe the old sign out front. Then the scent of the lobby. Then the quirky personality of the waitress. Then the taste of the food. Then the mysterious man in the corner who seems to be spying.
Want more advice for writing great scenes?
Enroll in my Powerful Pages writing course.
You might also like my post on writing voice.