How To Write Vivid Descriptions In Fiction

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When you’re writing fiction, you don’t have the luxury of showing your readers a photo of a character or a place. You have to paint a picture for your readers using words, so it’s essential that your book descriptions are vivid and compelling. But how do you do it? The key to writing vivid descriptions is to focus on the five senses, and to use action verbs and adjectives to bring your settings and characters to life. When you write fiction, it’s essential that you know how to write vivid descriptions.


Get close to your characters

Think of the crowded street you see in your mind’s eye when you imagine walking down the mean streets of New York. You think you see crowds of people, traffic, stores, but what you see doesn’t add up to anything that really looks like those things. You may not even see those flocks of pedestrians as identical people, but as a moving blur. Stand in front of crowds like these and see how differently you take them in. Take in the crowd without considering the individuals, then once your eyes have adjusted to them, contemplate how each person is different. At once you’ll begin to see differences in the tiny, incremental ways we’re all so similar and so different. If nobody else is doing so you might begin to think a bit like a sociologist or a zoologist, but for a novelist the picture of the players is fine. From this body of information you can extrapolate characters. This same technique can be used to create a detailed set, where you stage your fiction.

Tell more than one sense

Most people are clever enough to use adjectives and adverbs to get across which color a hair is or how the character is standing, but what about your other senses? If you want to make your writing more vivid, you need to make sure you’re not leaving anything out. Readers want to know what their characters are thinking and feeling. Describe the color of their hair or their action, and you’ve told readers what character you’re writing about — but if you focus on the feelings and emotions of a character, your readers will connect on an emotional level in ways that you can’t control. Be descriptive.

You’ll notice that emotions and thoughts often have color. For example, she was angry, and the room was feeling red as her face. Fear was oozing out in a white haze from the corner of the room, and choking everything around it. Happiness flooded the room, making the objects larger than they actually were. If you want to write vivid descriptive scenes, you have to describe not just the physical attributes, but the feelings that come along with the objects or environment. You want to captivate your readers with your descriptive prowess, and only then will your readers want to continue. Make them want to keep reading, but don’t overstep your bounds.

Bring the setting to life

Start by reinforcing your story’s conflict and theme — let’s say your story revolves around a man learning to appreciate and cultivate healthy friendships. If your setting is a town with sunset walks, smiling neighbors, and small businesses, emphasize that. If contrast is important to your story, make sure scene details include the messy politicians that the protagonist despises, and do a good job linking details back to the themes of the story. When faced with a choice between a dark old warehouse or a sleek new business building, readers will already know which setting fits your characters and plot best.

When creating the setting for your story, think about the cast of characters. A good way to produce a definitive sense of visual setting is to force yourself to consider all the characters in the story. In the example above, you hopefully not only considered the main character’s friends and enemies, but also his family, acquaintances, co-workers, and rivals. This forces you to consider all of the players in the story, including their locations, in order to see who’s coming to visit your protagonist, supporting or hindering his goals. Including all of these details will help you create a picture of the setting in the reader’s mind, as you can describe a host of relationships back to the conflict of the story.

Add layers

It’s hard to create vivid descriptions in fiction because people have a tendency to see the things they expect to see, not what’s actually there. To get around this, force yourself to notice more. Take a walk on a familiar street, then write down everything you see. You’ll be surprised by the difference in your perception between now and then. Now that you’re paying more attention, you’ll automatically notice some things you hadn’t before. Maybe you’ll even notice other things you didn’t notice the first time around. You don’t have to go to an unfamiliar place to find things to notice. Check the windowsill on a rainy day, or your computer monitor if it’s been on a lot. Study the light coming in and try to notice every shadow it creates. Do you see any interesting overlap? This will give you a head start when you write.

Next, try paying more attention to little details in your daily life. Actually think about how your clothes feel as they brush your skin, or which foot goes forward first when you walk. Which of your senses seem most in charge? When does your mind drift off, and what do you remember in moments like this? Each of your senses will look at a situation in a separate way, so by experimenting with how your character uses their senses, your description can come to life. This is true for every day details, and also for creating a sense of place. If you’re describing a dynamic, urban environment, you’ll notice noise more than quiet, noise of every variety. A more relaxed setting might have a different feeling. Most importantly, try to find the best words you can for what you’re describing, to bring it forth in the most vivid light possible.

Use phrases, not adjectives

We all know that we shouldn’t use vague adjectives when we’re writing, but even the simplest adjectival phrases seem formidable the first time you try to create them. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less necessary — whether you’re trying to paint a picture for your readers, or you’re just trying to avoid generic, boring writing. Here’s how to create effective phrases that avoid the so-called Mary-Sue school of description.

One challenge of writing descriptively is that it can make your writing feel both stilted and repetitive. Only so many times you can write “he was old” before your readers will think that you should get a thesaurus. But putting together a toolbox of effective phrases will allow you to vary your prose, and pack maximum description into a few words. Your vocabulary might feel limited at first, but it can expand immensely if you immerse yourself in the thick of a novel. To get you started in your venture to make your words say more, here’s a quick guide to figuring out what each of the five senses is saying.

Beware of cliches

Descriptions are a way for you to set the mood for your reader, and also for you to reveal much about your fictional world. But you can’t accomplish this if you rely on cliches to do your work for you. These descriptions use worn out metaphors to set moods and scenes, and you don’t need them. If you’re describing your character’s new apartment, you don’t need to say, “The walls were cold.” Instead, try, “The walls looked to be made of sheet metal.”

Before writing a description-heavy scene, take a moment to circle any cliches you see in it. Pay special attention if you find a cliche in the description of a character or setting. Most of the time this won’t be a stray metaphor, but an entire section of description directly lifted from the morning headlines. Many young writers find this easier if they ask themselves the question, “What’s the opposite of this cliche?” That way you’ll often find that great prose can come from one simple change. For example, if you find yourself writing, “She was a diva”, try changing it to, “She seemed like she would be Kanye West on a Friday night.”

Shock the reader into grasping the significance

A lot of writers are tempted to dive immediately into the details. It can be frustrating for the reader to watch a character walk through a field or commute through town without understanding why. To the writer who’s just starting out, however, it’s hard to describe the whole picture first — and then go into details. So you explore your fictional world more thoroughly, in manageable pieces, until you’ve found your way. This is especially important when you want readers to understand why the details are important, or to grasp that significance. It will take experimentation. Start with a few tiny details and start to build. Detail upon detail on top of detail. You want to show the reader not just what something is, but what it could be. You want them to feel acutely the itch of possibility. Imagination matched with details will make your world come alive.

It doesn’t help if you’re too generous. A description is vivid when it feels good to anticipate details in some places, and makes the reader feel like they’re lingering in other places. That means if you’re trying to make the reader feel as though they’re peering through a window, but you’ve described the whole outside of the house, the window details feel pointless. Similarly, if you say the reader can go anywhere they want, but then your descriptions of each room are endless, the freedom feels overwhelming. Each vivid description must intentionally move the reader.

Tread carefully with figurative language

Descriptions are powerful, both in and out of fiction. Good descriptions make readers able to see the world of a story, and understand it more deeply. But descriptions can sound clunky — or worse things can happen. Your aim, of course, is to create compelling, vibrant, and vivid descriptions, so that the reader can see the world of your story not just with their minds, but with essences as well as senses. Once you have the basics of description – where you want to go, what you’re going to see – think about your figurative language and approach. 

To take two examples, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love, makes metaphors based on yoga, giving descriptions of characters that are instantly compelling and memorable. Stephen King takes the opposite approach. King uses for the most part entirely concrete description, letting his metaphors and similes speak for themselves. He acknowledges the failure ever to escape “sight-pun concrete-like prose,” but in his own writing, and in teaching the how to write well, he tries to consciously not let his metaphors or similes sound clicky.

After flow comes clarity — once you’ve created the metaphor, paid attention to its specific details, then make sure that you can, in fact, give to those concrete details. Reasonably often, we happen to question how to write vivid descriptions that are pleasurable to read. If you’re sure that every sentence with description, every placement of color or texture, is there for both a greater nuanced experience, and to tell a bit of the rest of the story.

Get your reader to not notice details

Writing a description isn’t always as cut and dry as listing out what a room looks like. Because the goal is to immerse the reader in the experience, you have to use certain techniques to trick his brain into craving more description and imagery. One of the ways to do this is to use specific language to your advantage—you need to describe things as absolutely as you can while also using as few words as possible and leaving plenty of spots for the reader to insert his own imagination. Tell the reader enough details to paint the following picture in his brain, but not so many as to overload him. In fiction, details are about flowing from less to more. Take a moment to browse through other books in your genre to see how other authors describe the same things—they might not be using the exact same words, but they’re probably all using similarly vague language as they get more into the story.

Now put a pencil to a sheet of paper, and make a list of 8 important items that the typical reader will pick up on in your story. For example, in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, you may have a dog whose cloak is made of wolf fur, had belonged to his deceased owner, has an appetite to match his size, and who travels on a dog sled pulled by his team of dogs to the Klondike Canal as part of a secret mission. Those 8 items should be enough to get the reader involved in the story, but not so much as to put him to sleep. Then fill in the blanks as they go in order of least interesting to most interesting—this way, you’ll keep the reader’s attention as he goes from the less interesting details to the more vivid ones.

Good descriptions often catch the reader’s imagination and fire their emotional connection with the story. Not only that, but good descriptions are also useful for your authorial choices later on. If you’re having trouble figuring out attributes for a character, picturing details from your story in vivid detail will take you there. And once you master vivid description, you’ll be ready for other hacks and tricks to make your writing even better. So try out these tricks for yourself, and use them for the vivid, visual descriptions you’ve always wanted.

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