5 Tips to Improve Your Descriptive Writing

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5 tips to improve your descriptive writing

Good writing can immerse your reader into the world you’ve created and make it feel real by adding depth and vibrant details that bring it to life. However, scenes that aren’t described effectively can confuse readers and give them a hard time following along with everything that’s happening. But what is descriptive writing, and how can you improve your descriptions in a story? Keep reading because, in this post, we’ll cover this exact topic and give you five strategies to help you use descriptive writing effectively.

What is descriptive writing?

Descriptive writing is writing that describes a character, setting, or another element in great detail, which evokes a vivid picture of the scene in the reader’s mind. The goal of descriptive writing is to immerse the reader into the scene or situation, allowing them to visualize and experience it as if they were there themselves.

Here's an example from Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See:

The surf breaks nearby; water purls past her shoes. Marie-Laure wades forward; the floor of the room is sandy, the water barely ankle-deep. From what she can tell, it's a low grotto, maybe four yards long and half as wide, shaped like a loaf of bread. At the far end is a thick grate through which lustrous, clear sea wind washes. Her fingertips discover barnacles, weeds, a thousand more snails. "What is this place?”

From these few sentences, we get the feeling of being right there with Marie-Laure as she explores the old grotto in the town of Saint-Malo. We hear the sound of the surf breaking nearby, feel the sandy floor and ankle-deep water, and understand the shape of the room through the comparison to the loaf of bread.

Now that we know what descriptive writing is, let's look at some tips for making your own descriptive writing shine.

5 Tips to Improve Your Descriptive Writing

1. Orient the reader in every scene

As writers, we can easily picture where every scene takes place in our own imagination, but sometimes we forget to actually put those details on the page to help orient readers to where the scene is taking place. The scene-level revisions are where you’ll want to go through your entire story, scene by scene, and make sure you’re describing your setting effectively to orient the reader.

Orienting the reader in your story can look different depending on the genre, the writing style, the audience the story is intended for, and even where the scene is placed in the novel. Orienting a reader in a scene doesn’t have to be an extravagant affair with lots of bells and whistles or long paragraphs of description. Some scenes and genres may call for that, but some won’t. Sometimes it will only take a few sentences to orient the reader in a scene.

For some scenes, the location is not that important to the scene, and a big, lengthy description of the location will just detract from what’s happening in the scene and slow it down. In these cases, make sure that you are giving your reader some type of proper orientation, so the scene doesn’t appear to happen nowhere, even if that orientation is only a few sentences or a few words long.

2. Filter scene descriptions through your narrator

When writing descriptions, sometimes it’s easy to get carried away and want to write the most epic, beautiful, heart-wrenching descriptions ever. However, we have to remember who is giving the reader these descriptions. Who is narrating the story? Unless it's an omniscient third-person narrator, every story is told through the eyes of someone in the story. So, how do they see the scene? How would they describe it? If they’re not the type of person to notice the painting on the wall or what type of flower is in the garden, or even know the names of those flowers, it’s going to feel off-putting for your scene descriptions to suddenly have every type of flower named or every brushstroke of a painting identified. Always filter your scene descriptions through your narrator, so they feel organic to the story.

Filtering descriptions through your narrator is not just about what this specific narrator might notice. It’s about the narrator’s entire experience in the story and scene–who they are as a character. Think about what their goals are, what their conflicts are, what knowledge or expertise they have, or what physical or emotional state they’re in at the time the scene takes place, and how they feel about what’s happening in the scene.

Describing details of your scenes is not just about setting the scene or helping the reader orient themselves in it. That’s a huge part of it, but it’s also about orienting the reader emotionally in the scene. That emotion and mood can be transferred to the reader just by filtering your scene descriptions through your narrator, so make sure your descriptions are delivering on that.

3. Think about who and what is in the scene

Orienting the reader in a scene is about much more than just the setting in which the scene takes place. In fact, the setting itself is about so much more than just the location. It’s the people in the location, the objects filling the location, the way the people in the location interact with the objects, and the emotions the location elicits from the characters interacting with it.

When we think about scene settings as more than just locations, our descriptions will instantly become more vivid, immersive, and memorable because we’re attaching them to something meaningful in the scene instead of just plopping them down randomly somewhere on the page.

It’s often helpful to focus on one or a few key objects within the setting, and use that key object to represent the location. Often, when we don’t focus descriptions on one or a few representative objects, descriptions can feel all over the place, and it's hard to choose what parts of the setting to describe and what parts to leave out. Choosing one or a few “representative objects” to describe with more detail allows you to paint a fuller picture with fewer words.

4. Use immersive worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is often thought of and brainstormed at the story level, but it plays out in your individual scenes and paragraphs, where your characters are actually in the world, interacting with it and engaging with it. You want to make sure that all your hard work on worldbuilding pays off in your descriptions to keep the reader locked into our fictional world page after page.

The descriptions of your world should never be dumped onto the page but should always be woven in purposefully and immersively. This is done largely through what we talked about in tip #2, filtering the descriptions through your narrator. Instead of telling us how the money in your world works, show us by having the character buy something. Instead of simply describing the geography, have your character pass through it. Basically, every time you want to describe something from your worldbuilding, figure out how you can show your characters interacting with these elements so you can organically trigger the descriptions to make them feel more purposeful.

5. Use the five senses to bring scenes to life

We can’t just rely on what the characters see. The characters themselves are not just seeing the things around them. They’re also smelling them, hearing them, tasting them, and feeling them. The more sensory details you add for the reader by describing them through your characters, the easier it will be to bring your scenes to life through your descriptions.

For instance, what comes to mind when you hear fresh-baked cinnamon rolls? What about new car? Grandma’s basement? Fresh laundry? Notice all the vivid details your mind automatically fills in without having to say much more than that. The same can work for sound, taste, and touch as well. By describing a scent, you inspire the reader to reach into their own memories to recall what that smells like. The reader will subconsciously use those memories to fill in even more details than what you wrote, allowing you to do more descriptive writing with fewer words.

By using one or more of the strategies above, you’ll be able to provide the reader with enough descriptive writing to describe scenes in a vibrant, impactful way. These strategies were taken from the lesson Are My Scenes Described Effectively? in The Complete Novel Revision Course. To dive deeper into these strategies, see examples from published novels, and more, check out the course in the Writing Mastery Academy!


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